Nelson Mandela

African voices

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am


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Last year, a film about pharmaceutical companies testing their products in Kenyan slums - and a couple's fight to expose it - won best supporting actress at the Academy Awards and a best director nomination.

This year, Forest Whitaker has won awards for his turn as Idi Amin, and Leonardo DiCaprio's Blood Diamond has focused attention on a deadly trade.

Suddenly, Africa has found its grievances and troubles lapped up by a worldwide audience.

Opening next week at the Berlin International Film Festival is Goodbye Bafana, an account

of Nelson Mandela's (Dennis Haysbert) days in the Robben Island prison - as seen through the eyes of his white gaoler-cum-confidant (Joseph Fiennes).

And that's the problem with these films, critics say: everything is observed through a white prism, and Africa's problems become simply the backdrop to a thriller (Blood Diamond) or a reflection of the white psyche (The Last King of Scotland and Bafana).

Africans are secondary players. In Blood Diamond, the hapless Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who travels through war-torn Sierra Leone with DiCaprio's mercenary Danny Archer, is portrayed as someone at the mercy of fate. 'Sometimes I wonder if God will ever forgive us for what we've done to each other,' says Archer. 'Then I look around and I realise - God left this place a long time ago.' It's a revealing scene: the other party isn't given a chance to respond. If he did, he may well tell Archer it's not divine non-intervention that left Africa in tatters as much as the legacy of western colonialism.

According to Mahir Saul, of the University of Illinois' Centre for African Studies, the films don't give Africans a voice. 'They're concerned with the responsibility of northern countries and companies and adopt the liberal point of view: 'What are we doing to these poor people?' - which wouldn't have been the perspective of an African director making a film for an African audience.'

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako has attracted critical acclaim with his third feature, Bamako (above).

Set in a communal courtyard in a house in the Malian capital, the film puts on trial the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. As lawyers argue about the deeds and misdeeds of these institutions - whose policies forced many African states to spend a large part of their budgets to service foreign loans - a parallel narrative shows the struggle of ordinary Malians living in the compound, symbolised by the break-up of a jobless man and his wife.

There are no electrifying action sequences or contrived romances in Bamako. Instead, African lives and perspectives are vividly portrayed. And an African voice provides the most poignant moment: an old farmer, his face etched with years of anguish and hard labour, walks to the witness stand and begins a long, wailing chant. It's a scream of pain and anger - but, sadly, it's drowned out by the machine-gun rattle of the likes of Blood Diamond.