This article examines some of the ways in which African forms of orality inform arguments against colonialism and neo-colonialism, thus constituting the modern African filmmaker as griot - travelling storyteller.
The function of the griot in traditional societies was to act as guardian of "old words" and societal knowledge (Stoller, 1992:xvi). Some African filmmakers represent a melding of traditional forms of storytelling with modern technologies, creating a new social/political medium through which African identities are both formed and given voice. The filmmaker, through film's capacity to capture and record an event or moment which can be shown and re-shown, becomes the new guardian of tradition. Through the relatively modern media of film, and increasingly video production, the griot has been recovered by film directors in contemporary African society. As such, the message of the griot has also changed to reflect the issues of the current age.
I will examine Jean-Marie Teno's Afrique, je te Plumerai , Dani Kouyat'e's Keita: the Heritage of the Griot, and Djibril Mambety's Hyenas with regard to how each filmmaker fits the role of griot and how this storyteller is imaged within their respective films. How do these three directors engage the idea of orality to advance their film's respective messages? Orality is the basis of the reclamation of an African voice in African cinema. By functioning as griots , or bards, modern African filmmakers are reserving in cinema a new space within which a critique of both past and present can begin. It is in this third space, outside both the bounds of tradition and Westernized influences, that an African-shaped interpretation of identity can be explored. For this reason it is important to examine how some modern African filmmakers use oral traditions to critique the colonial/neo-colonial experience.
The modern African filmmaker, embodied here by Teno, Kouyate, and Mambety, functions as griot both through the griot character within the film and in the way that the director himself relates to the role. The director's relationship to the role is manifested in two ways: first, the director leads the action toward resolution of the film's meaning, signaling that the film itself is taking on the role of griot . The second way is the director's insertion of himself within the narrative of the film. In this case, the ways in which the filmmaker-as- griot leads the film are more subtle.
Afrique, je te Plumerai is the most overtly political of the three films. Through documentary, Teno condemns the loss of African initiative to Westernized ideas, especially as occurred in the shift from orality to print. He uses footage from colonialist propaganda films to show the irony of the colonizer's mission of bringing `civilization' to an already civilized society. These shots are contrasted with the interviews of a woman journalist who visits the three cultural centers in Yaounde - one French, one British, and the last German - finding that the literature there is almost entirely European. He tells the story of intellectual dispossession through an old man whose son, a revolutionary leader, was assassinated, and in then words of a newspaper editor of a newspaper who criticizes the one-party state.
The repetition of the child's nursery rhyme, "Alouette," combined with Teno's grandfather's story about the larks (in which Africans are the larks that the colonizers pluck/fleece) also figures prominently in this method of critique. The inherent irony is, however, that the rhyme is a product of the colonial-colonized encounter. It is sung in French, the language of the colonizer and thus reflects the film's secondary message: a total return to traditional ways is not possible. Rather, Teno is suggesting that the modes of discourse established by the colonizer should continue to be used but in the service of African issues and with a basis in African traditions such as orality and the importance of the community over the individual. In this way, Teno reduces the binarism of dependency theory wherein countries of the Third World are viewed as de-developed and exploited by the more economically powerful nations which had once been colonizers (Kearney, 80-81). Like other theories in the evolution of anthropology, dependency theory tends to maintain the good-bad dichotomy set up to justify colonialism by modernization theory. It is incapable of acknowledging both the contributions and negative aspects of both participants, as well as understating their actual involvement with one another.
By showing the man typing in the street, Teno fuses the African sense of collectivity with literateness. The man is shaped by his involvement in the life of the community rather than adhering to the Western artistic ideal of `escape' from routine and the isolation of the individual as artist (Tomaselli et al 1995)). Another way that Teno shows this social integration is by delving into national history to discuss the alphabet developed by a Cameroonian King in 1895. This form of written language is lauded for its basis in communal thought and its accessibility to a diverse audience. Originally composed of 510 pictographs, it was later simplified to seventy phonemes. Teno draws on this piece of history to show that there are positive aspects to the printed word when it is grounded in African values.
This is in contrast to the ways in which the French used print to marginalize Africans. It was the colonizer's manipulation of print that exploited Africans rather than an evil inherent to literacy. By making this distinction, Teno makes an argument for a third social space in which orality and literacy coincide. This is reflected in the words of the man typing in the street who says that the best thing he can do for his children is to educate them. His statement is important because it shows his, as well as the film's, acknowledgment of the importance of adapting to the situation as it exists rather than perpetuating reified notions of tradition and excluding certain positive aspects of modernity.
The musician- griot at the end of the film summarizes this idea of creating a new social space through his commentary on films. He calls attention to the ridiculousness of Western films by asking how it is possible for Marlon Brando or Alain Delon to die in one film and come back to life in another. (This is the task set the policeman in Aristotle's Plot .) His song, "When the film is sad, it makes me laugh," ends with his claim that he will not return to the theater until Africans make their own films. This is significant because it is a call for Africans to shirk their complacency about Western influences. In this context, he is demanding African solidarity for shaping and
Filmically, the musician- griot's message is important because as a griot he plays a parallel role to Teno, the film's director. The musician is the most visible expression of Teno's message because as the embodiment of the griot character, he is utilizing traditional methods and modern media to critique the past and its effect on the present. In this way, Teno inserts himself into the film to act as griot . By involving the musician- griot character whose ideas reinforce Teno's own, Teno is establishing himself as a cinematic griot .
Like the traditional griots , Teno activates the collective memory of the people, reminding them of their history and contextualizing those ideas within current struggles. Furthermore, he achieves this without resorting to the didacticism of Western documentaries which lay down facts without any emotional involvement from the filmmaker. Teno's arm appears in a number of shots, reminding the viewer that there is a person behind the camera making decisions. This adds the human component to the film, missing in what Stoller calls `the plain style' of much anthropological work (Stoller 1992:203). Plain style refuses metaphor, poetic imagery, and evocative prose which are the substance of Afrique . This is the case in the allusion Teno makes between the French nursery rhyme "Alouette" and his grandfather's story of the larks. The use of this metaphor engages another facet of the griot's function: to make the lessons of the past come into the present through folktales.
Kouyat'e's film, Keita: the Heritage of the Griot , is based upon the Sundiata epic of Mali. The story, similar to the one that Djeliba recounts for Mabo in the film, is about a great king who was born to a hunchbacked mother. The king is an important figure in Malian history because he turned the nation into a vast trading empire (www.newsreel. org/films/keita. The film uses this mythic tale to comment on and critique the present. It does so by drawing a parallel between Sundiata and Mabo, both of whom are interested in learning the meanings of their respective names. Sundiata, whose co-mother wants to prevent him from becoming king, and Mabo, whose life in twentieth-century Burkina Faso has displaced him from his history, are linked through the uncertain future of their identities.
Kouyate makes his political statement through this comparison of Sundiata and Mabo. Djeliba is assigned the filmmaker's voice in order to make the absurdities of Western-influenced curricula in African education apparent. When Mabo's teacher asks him to wait until after exams to continue his instruction, Djeliba asks why Mabo cannot take his exams after he has learned the epic story. The teacher has no answer for this, telling Djeliba that he does not set the school schedule. Djeliba asks him to bring the heads of government to him so that they can discuss it, saying that he does not want to have anything to do with a man who has no power to make decisions. This scene represents the film's reproach of the hierarchical structure of bureaucracy. The people have become distanced from their history through the centralization of decision-making power in government
This criticism is reinforced in the contrast of Darwinism and the Sundiata epic. When Djeliba first arrives, Mabo is studying evolutionary theory. Djeliba argues that Mabo's education fails by not teaching him that his ancestors were kings. This aspect of the Westernized curricula follows the sequence established by the colonizers of denying African history in favor of the European perspective. It denies the sense of purpose in human history that Mande myth celebrates (www.newsreel.org/ films/keita). By making this comparison, Kouyat'e connects the problems of the present with the loss of history that Westernized education represents.
Djeliba's statement that Mabo is learning that he is descended from apes has the added impact of reminding the viewer of earlier Western images of the African, specifically in Tarzan films. These images were integral in the development of the African as `Other, dehumanizing the colonial subject to justify the colonizer's exploitation. By framing the argument within this context, Kouyat'e calls attention to the necessity of African voices in the shaping of an African identity. Using the Sundiata epic to do this grounds the development of identity in African historical traditions.
Kouyat'e makes these arguments via the character of Djeliba, the griot sent to teach Mabo about his history through the Sundiata epic. Kouyate asserts himself as a cinematic griot through his connection to the griot within the film. This is established by giving him his name, Kouyat'e. His name, Djeliba, means "great griot " (www.newsreel.org/films/keita). Just as Djeliba is called upon by the hunter to instruct Mabo in his history, Kouyat'e is bringing the story of the Sundiata epic to a wider audience through film. This, like Teno's transformation of the griot into a modern storyteller, contemporizes the past within current issues. Kouyat'e fulfills the traditional role of griot by contextualizing his critique of the Westernization of African education in the "old words" of the Sundiata epic (Stoller 1992:xvii). Through the contrast of these two modes of discourse, Kouyat'e highlights the value of awareness in regard to one's ancestry. This is the theme of the film as it is shown to shape the actions of both Mabo and Sundiata, and applies to a broader African audience in the midst of neo-colonialism. By using film as his medium of expression, Kouyat'e contextualizes the message and the story within modern technology. This inevitably changes the cinematic griot's function. Traditional griots did not offer answers to the issues that they raised. Rather, they provided guidance through metaphoric language and the telling of folktales (Tomaselli & Eke 1995). Kouyat'e has adapted the epic story to the modern situation, linking history and contemporary issues. Furthermore, he uses the Sundiata epic to state his political message, grounding the argument in a tradition-enhanced base. By doing so, Kouyat'e is making the point that African identities must be shaped by their ability to link past and present.
Djeliba leaves before telling Mabo all of the epic. In the final scene, Mabo runs after him, presumably to discover the meaning of his name. It is then that he meets the mystical hunter whose presence represents destiny. The encounter between Mabo and the hunter signifies the transformation which has occurred within Mabo. By failing to fully initiate him, Djeliba has forced Mabo to discover the rest of his history for himself. In this sense it implies that Mabo must become himself a griot, to find the meaning of his name within what he has already learned. This has significance for African viewers as well who must educate themselves in the history that has been denied them. Kouyat'e thus becomes the agent through which an autonomous identity can develop. In this sense, he is making a return to the original function of the griot, providing guidance rather than a discrete answer (Tomaselli & Eke 1995). Kouyat'e's message becomes, at film's end, one in which he encourages Africans to make their own decisions with regard to questions of identity. However, by grounding his statements in tradition and linking them to current arguments he does not conform entirely to the more traditional, less moralizing role of griot.
Mambety's portrayal of the role of griot in Hyenas is more akin to this last function of Kouyate's griot than the more typical examples that Teno and Kouyate generally represent. By putting himself into the story as a character, his involvement in the film's action is direct. Mambety plays Gaana, the chief steward of Ramatou Linguere. His most significant job is to watch from a rock as the townspeople of Colobane carry out her ultimatum: the murder of Draman Drameh in exchange for economic prosperity (Rayfield 1995). The function of his character is important in understanding the message of the film. As the community devours itself, he watches, incapable of offering solutions, instead acting only as an observer.
This is the point at which Mambety diverges from the role of cinematic griot established by Teno in Afrique and Kouyate in Keita. The message of their films suggests that the problems associated with colonialism and neo-colonialism can be alleviated by making a return to tradition in one sense or another. Mambety makes no such claim. He conforms to the traditional definition of a griot as one who provides guidance through the metaphoric linking of past and present without social prescriptives (Tomaselli & Eke 1995). This is the role that Kouyate attempts to take on at the end of Keita by leaving the resolution of the meaning of Mabo's name to him to discover.
By presenting a situation in which everyone is shown to be corruptible, Mambety leaves resolution to the viewer who becomes the agent through which understanding of the film takes place. The film closes with the implication that the community has been harmed by its blind acceptance of the benefits of the Western world (the refrigerators, television sets, and air conditioners that Ramatou doles out in order to buy their allegiance) as well as by the collective nature of their betrayal of Draman Drameh (Porton, 1995). The film does not expand on what will happen to Colobane after Draman Drameh's death or Ramatou's departure. It is assumed that she will keep her promise and that economic prosperity has already begun. However, as characteristic of the traditional functioning of the griot , Mambety does not comment on the value of this.
The political message of the film is moot. Mambety shows that both the traditional sense of community and the effects of modernization make people subject to corruption. This is a more negative tone than that taken by either Teno or Kouyat'e. However, in shaping his story in this way, Mambety is offering a warning to his audience, suggesting that the blind acceptance of either tradition or modernity leads to destruction.
Mambety states that as a filmmaker he has a responsibility to "represent the collective unconscious of [the] people" (Givanni 1995:31). By functioning as a griot he brings out into the open the ideas that people may leave unconsidered. This is the nature of Hyenas , in which he critiques both the effects of neo-colonialism and traditional modes. However, the critique does not make an argument for or against either, it merely shows how each can be used to corrupt and ultimately, destroy a community.
In conclusion, all three filmmakers represent an appropriation of the role of griot . Teno, Kouya'te, and Mambety are storytellers who use the medium of film to call attention to the needs of their respective communities. They do this by enacting the griot's functions, grounding their messages in the traditions of their respective African heritages and linking contemporary issues to history and memory. This leads ultimately to the creation of a third social/political space in which the creation of African images and identities is maintained by the people themselves. While the three films examined vary in their messages and in the directors' different responses to the role of griot, they share the desire to define the needs of their community with a wholly `African' voice, unmediated by the paternalistic West. In this sense, Teno, Kouyat'e, and Mambety constitute themselves as cinematic griots .
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