Oscar and the African Kings of Cinema

Timbuktu from Mauritania won two awards at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and its selection as an Academy Award nominee is a major coup that may revitalise the film's international appeal. Better still, this pick from a poor and sometimes beleaguered nation may rejuvenate interest in African cinema overall. By Russell Edwards

There have only been two previous African winners of the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Algeria scored a win with Z in 1969 and Ivory Coast hit it with Black and White in Colour in 1976. More recently, South Africa won with Tsotsi in 2005. But since the directors of all those films are white (the Greek Costa-Gavras, French Jean Jacques Annaud and the Johannesburg-born Gavin Hood, respectively), Timbuktu director Abderrahmane Sissako has landed a first by being the first black African director to have a film nominated for an Oscar.

Sissako's early breakthrough came with his sublime 2002 film Waiting for Happiness, which participated in the Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard competition that year and has many of the same qualities of Timbuktu: a detached, but compassionate regard for its characters, a revelatory sense of colour and an arresting soundtrack. His 2006 follow-up, Bamako (executive-produced by Danny Glover, who also did a cameo as a cowboy), was a more challenging film, with Godardian humour and a surreal mix of drama and IMF politics. Bamako (pictured below) tended to baffle and challenge rather than touch or stir (if the walkouts at the Sydney Film Festival in 2007 were any indication).

While Timbuktu is a Mauritanian/French co-production, Sissako actually studied film in Moscow from 1983 to 1989 and thereafter settled in France rather than return to Mali where he grew up (it's his father's home country), or Mauritania where his mother then lived. (Waiting for Happiness is partially based on Sissako's life in Mauritania before making the decision to live in France.) Having served on the Cannes jury in 2007 and having been a subject of a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival that same year, Sissako hasn't exactly gone unheralded, but his profile is still not as high as his films deserve. An Oscar win for Timbuktu could catapult Sissako into the stratosphere. The film's take on ISIS, Islamic fundamentalism and images of indisputable splendour make Timbuktu essential viewing. Better still, the languid pacing of Sissako's work, the considered sincerity of his politics and his commitment to cinematic beauty makes it unlikely that he'll waste his new status on a Marvel franchise sequel if he does take home the golden statuette.

Win or lose, when it comes to African movies, Sissako is but the latest king in a series of talented men. Partially due to French colonialism making filmmaking for Africans a punishable offense, it is not until the 1950s that African cinema really began. As colonialism fell away, a generation of filmmakers emerged to depict, portray and even satirise the foundling nations.

Known as the "father of African cinema," Senegalese novelist Sembene Ousmane turned to the newly accessible medium, and like Sissako, also studied cinema in Moscow from 1962-1963. Rejecting the France-induced assimilation policies, Sembene wanted to reach the illiterate African masses with his literary themes of rebellion, change and equality. His 1966 film La Noire de... (aka Black Girl), though only 55 minutes long, is generally regarded as Africa's first feature. In his longer, full colour follow-up, The Money Order (1968), Sembene aimed to swap colonial French for his native Wolof language. But change comes slow. As he was working from his own French novel, Sembene ended up making two different language versions (French and Wolof) of his comedy about a Dakar man who tries to cash a cheque received from his Paris-based nephew.

Sembene's films Xala (1974) about corruption by leaders of African nations and Ceddo (1977), a historical film concerned with and sometimes attacking, the impact of Islam on Africa are regarded as his masterpieces. Making four more films before his death in 2007, Sembene continued to court controversy, with his 1988 film The Camp at Thiaroye being banned in France and his 2004 swan song Moolaade (pictured below) lambasting the practice of female genital mutilation.

As Sembene's star waned, another African star rose. Idrissa Ouedraogo was the African director of the 1990s. It was an era when this director from the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) could have his films play on SBS and even in local arthouse cinemas.

Beginning his film studies in Ouagadougou's African Institute for Cinema Studies, Ouedraogo built on his short film skills by doing further cinema studies in Soviet-era Kiev. With a tendency towards fable, Ouedraogo's second feature Yaaba (aka Grandmother) received Australian distribution - and some acclaim - for its gentle portrait of a young boy who befriends an aging woman who the rest of his village believes is a witch. Likewise, his 1990 winner of the Cannes Grand Jury prize, Tilai (aka The Law), also played at Australian cinemas (albeit not until three years later). Tilai too had a mythic, timeless quality as it portrayed the story of a man who returns to his village after a two-year absence to find that his promised bride is now married to his father. Outraged, the man exiles himself to the desert, but when his sister brings his beloved to him, a familial tale of Shakespearean resonance is set in motion. Beautifully composed, and frequently austere in tone thanks to his use of long and medium shots, Tilai captivates the eye as well as the soul.

Ouedraogo's later films were less frequently seen on Australian shores. A '90s acquaintance once lent me a VHS of Samba Traore, a story of a man plagued by village jealousy of his wealth and guilt around his accumulation of the same, but beyond a segment in the September 11 anthology 11'09"01, Ouedraogo's most recent features Anger of the Gods (2003) and Kato Kato (2006) have largely remained hidden from western eyes.

Of course, there's more to African cinema history than these three directors. From the Marxist movies of Mozambique in the '70s to contemporary production powerhouse, Nigeria, there are many more facets to African film. But the opportunity to tell African stories to an international audience can be a struggle. Here's hoping that Sissako's Timbuktu spearheads renewed interest in the power of African movies.

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