The empire lives on;Reviews;Film amp; media

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
A pack on African cinema shows the indignities and injustices still suffered by Africans today, writes Laurence Alster

TEACHING AFRICAN CINEMA. Photocopiable teaching pack with videotape. British Film Institute. pound;19.99 plus pound;1 pamp;p.

Before it was fully explored, most Europeans saw Africa as the Dark Continent: distant, mysterious and unexplained. So it is for many film and media studies teachers today, at least with regard to African cinema. Long a fixture on some A-level syllabuses, it is a subject largely seen as one best steered clear of. No surprise, really: with resources and study materials not easy to come by, teachers can hardly be blamed for seeking more practical options.

With the publication of Teaching African Cinema, this should change. This sensitive and well-informed pack is precisely the thing for teachers who wish to contrast western cinema with what some may regard as a Third World counterpart and to point out the certain worth of less conventional film forms.

In so doing, it will also lead students to an understanding of the indignities and injustices suffered by black Africans, both in the past and today. For one of the main purposes of this pack is to illustrate the ways by which the legacy of a defunct military imperialism still lingers in both ideological and economic forms, not least in film production, distribution and exhibition.

This is done by several means. First, a concise history of the European subjugation and exploitation of Africa; then, with particular reference to pivotal personalities, financial systems and censorship, a survey of the development of film on the continent. Following a short section on African culture - the emphasis being laid on language, religion and the position of women - the final part offers synopses, commentaries and questions on the varied video clips that are central to the pack's usefulness.

Lucid and thorough, each of these sections is studded with panels that enclose items of interest, some of which will make students gasp ("Total sales of General Motors, Ford, Exxon and Shell exceed the GNP of all of Africa"; "The annual receipts from foreign films are over pound;33 million I It is unlikely that receipts from all African films since 1963 are much above pound;1.5 million"), plus tasks that hold as much pleasure as purpose. For example, students are urged to write to cinema managers to ask why so few African films are screened. Everywhere there are suggestions for constructive discussion: on language, representation, news, narrative, colonialism and others. This is a pack to keep students thinking.

Nowhere more so, in fact, than in a concluding section that uses often lengthy extracts from African feature films and assorted TV documentaries. Thus excerpts from Ousmane Sembene's Xala, Ferid Boughedir's Halfaouine and, among others, Moussa Yoro Bathily's Le Certificat d'Indigence are made more accessible through intelligent comment on plot, music, style and censorship.

Again, questions constantly prod the readerviewer into a state of heightened attentiveness: What do clothes say about character? Why are high and low-angle shots used in particular scenes? How do environment and setting indicate class differences? If this were a Hollywood film, how would it be adjusted?

How indeed. Students will enjoy contrasting the western films with African themes listed in a filmography with the authors' selection of those of African origin - a list that might have included the absurd but instructive Mogambo (1953) and an enthralling but questionable 1966 production, The Naked Prey.

BFI, 21 Stephen Street, London W1P 2LN. Tel: 0171 255 1444

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