Caméra d’Afrique (1983), directed by Tunisian pioneer filmmaker and scholar, Férid Boughedir, is at once an expository presentation of the history of African cinema in terms of who the pioneers were, of how they approached decolonizing the image of the African subject, what their major accomplishments were, and what continuous challenges persisted. The release of the restored documentary in high definition and with a crisper sonic plane, most recently featured through streaming at the New York African Film Festival, at once allows us to revisit those major challenges and compels us to ask: Where are we 60 years hence? What has happened over the past 40 years?
At present, Boughédir’s documentary remains the most comprehensive yet condensed archive of African cinema in existence. Comprehensive to an extent, since it documents Twenty Years of African Cinema (its English title), from Sembène Ousmane’s Borom Sarret (1963) and Black Girl (1966) to Souleymane Cissé’s Finye (The Wind, 1982) with footage from feature film clips selected among the additional 40 first- and second-generation filmmakers of those years. Condensed, because that span of history of filmmaking is contained in just a frame short of one hour and forty minutes of 15mm reel. The restoration of the documentary seems doubly important considering not only the preservation of the film in and of itself, but also its conservation as digital archive.
Stylistically, the film is more of an audiovisual essay rather than a straight up expository documentary in that it aligns itself with the somewhat recent field of scholarly inquiry at once within and beyond academia, engaging critical inquiry through the use of sound and image. One might say that Boughédir was ahead of his time in this regard, considering he was at once working as a practitioner of cinema—traversing the Sahara to meet his “brothers in struggle” in Carthage and FESPACO to discuss, debate, and show their films while making this documentary—as well as its North African counterpart, Caméra arabe, released in 1987—saving his money to buy one reel at a time, and writing his PhD thesis on the same topic. He was determined, literally at any cost and through any means, to record the birth and early development of African cinema, and to make it available to the broadest audience possible and certainly to those he knew would never go digging through the Sorbonne’s archives for his dissertation. Further, his own auteur style—the insertion of one’s own subjective positionality into one’s film and incorporating it into one’s own style—is inscribed in the film’s composition voiceover, direct interviews, archival footage of entire clips of original features and montage techniques which he employs in the service of his thesis that the pioneers of African cinema were Filming Against All Odds.
Few films have continued the work Boughédir began through documentary filmmaking, although some have certainly focused on certain aspects. Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s docudrama, Bye Bye Africa (1999), for one, directly addresses questions—this time within the national context—including the filmmaker’s responsibilities, the filmmaking process, and an utter lack of cinema industry and infrastructure in Chad. Other films have focused on individual filmmakers, for instance, Laurence Gavron’s Ninki Nanka (1999). In her portrait documentary, Gavron attempts to elucidate some of the mystery around the figure of the great innovative filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, as her camera tracks him on set filming Hyènes (Hyenas, 1992). Unlike Gavron’s biopic approach, Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman pay tribute to the late “father of African cinema,” Ousmane Sembène, in Sembène! (2015). What their documentary shares with Boughédir’s is an emphasis on the importance of archiving, made explicit in a memorable scene where narrator Gadjigo literally rescues hundreds of reels, which he’s found in the filmmaker’s disheveled and abandoned seaside studio, their metal cases rusty from direct exposure to the salty air.
Whereas this is by no means a call for a sequel to Caméra (or for more documentaries on related topics), it is crucial to note that questions around viable production and distribution of African filmmaking persist and are most resounding today. Auteur cinema across the continent remains plagued by a lack of industry—with few exceptions. Certainly, in spite of significant strides taken by the Pan-African Federation of African Filmmakers (FEPACI), including the (albeit short-lived) formation of south-south distribution networks such as the Inter-African Consortium of Cinematographic Distribution (CIDC) in the early 1980s, the most recent generations of African auteur filmmakers still face a nearly total lack of distribution outside a circuit that is dominated by the various lords of economic global imperialism. In other words, with all that digital archiving and streaming can offer—as Caméra’s restored re-release highlights—how can we conceive of a future where African auteur films can enjoy shooting and editing on the continent, uninhibited by national and international politics? How can African cinema find distribution beyond the festival circuit? Is the future of African auteur cinema streaming?