Godmilow: Western films about Africa only glorify the West

The renowned filmmaker says that to discover anything useful about Africa in the cinema, you must watch African films — films made by African directors

July 24, 2012

Jill Godmilow

Jill Godmilow is a renowned independent film and video-maker and an Emeritus Professor in the Dept. of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She's also a noted theorist on the documentary film genre and has written and lectured extensively on form and representation. Her films include: Antonia: A Portrait Of The Woman, With Jerzy Grotowski, Nienadowka, 1980, The Popovich Brothers Of South Chicago, Far From Poland,  Waiting For The Moon and What Farocki Taught.

Here, Godmilow argues that if you want to learn anything useful about Africa from film, you must consult the continent's home-grown directors:

Simone Weil wrote, "Documents originate among the powerful ones, the conquerors. History, therefore, is nothing but a compilation of the depositions made by assassins with respect to their victims and themselves." An old African proverb says "Until the lions can tell their stories, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter."                                                                             

This is what I see in Hollywood's representation of Africa and Africans — both before the 1994 Rwandan genocide and after — tales that glorify the hunter made by Western hunter/filmmakers.  More subtle or less subtle, they almost always produce a scary or backward/undeveloped or desperate people who live on a dark and mysterious continent which "we" will never understand. Our films exploit the African continent as a shaded exotic/erotic zone where white folks play dangerous games, struggle, save black Africans from destruction and sometimes, even learn a thing or two from a wise old black man. To discover anything useful about Africa in the cinema, you must watch African films — films made by African directors. Fortunately for us, Ellie Higgins has given us a magnificent annotated list of these.

If we Westerners must go to Africa and make films there, there are films from other countries that could serve as good models. Each in this list involves two key strategies. The first is collaboration with the peoples of the place —True collaboration. This would give us an opportunity — with our superior technological skills and equipment — to serve the people whose stories we would tell. It would also keep us honest in our storytelling. Then, some kind of useful experience of these people and places might be offered.

The second strategy is re-enactment. Develop important stories from the histories of these other peoples and ask them to re-enact them for the cinema.

Please take a look at the superb innovation, Ten Canoes, a 2006 feature film that comes directly out of an aboriginal culture. It’s a collaborative effort between the Dutch/Australian filmmaker, Rolf de Heer, aborigine director, Peter Djigirr, and the Ganalbingu people of Arnhem Land. The film is in the Ganalbingu language. For us, the aborigines of Australia are very very foreign people, but here in the Ten Canoes cinema, we can, at the least, for 90 minutes, swim in their language and just begin to sniff out the sounds and rhythms of these people. There is a great deal more for us in this film, but there is always at least that… true sound… a way of knowing someone… a beginning.

Please take a look at the 1961 film. The Exiles, a collaboration between UCLA grad student, Kent MacKenzie, and some Native American friends of his who re-perform their recent painful experience of being tricked off their reservation and brought to Los Angeles to wander through wild drunken nights in the City of Angels, thus to become Americans. It is one of the most painful and most beautiful films I have ever seen.

Be sure to watch and watch again the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film, The Battle of Algiersperhaps the most perfect demonstration of re-enactment and collaboration. If we had studied this film for strategies, we could do much better making films in sub-Saharan Africa.  Perhaps, we would have avoided the horror show of 9/11 and the wars which have consumed us since. We might have understood a bit better the recent "Arab Spring."

There are others films we should learn from before we strike again in Africa, or in any other third-world country. These are just a few of the best.

This story is part of Worldview's occasional series Images, Movies and Race, produced in conjunction with WBEZ’s Race: Out Loud series. Read more on film contributor Milos Stehlik's conversations with actress and University of Hartford professor Joyce Ashuntantang and author/scholar MaryEllen Higgins about how modern Hollywood films on Africa hide racist overtones within heroic, feel-good stories.