AFRICAN PORTRAITS Age range: 15 to 19 BBC2, (broadcast in the first half of the autumn term) Free programme guide, BBC Education, 0181 746 1111
Vibrancy, enthusiasm, optimism, creativity. Perhaps these are not the words we immediately associate with Africa, but these have been the paramount forces at work in African Portraits, a new geography series broadcast in the first half of this term. This season of five, 25-minute programmes, has been schools television's contribution to the nationwide Africa '95 festival, introducing viewers to the lives of young creative people. A dancer, actress, musician, artist and two photographers talked about their work, families, struggles, ambitions and the countries in which they live.
At first the narrators, largely the young people themselves, appeared to be talking about another continent. Their concerns are jobs, money, music, art, life and family relationships. War, famine, politics those hardy African trademarks hardly had a mention at all. Were we being fed a travelogue line, or was it that these people were the real Africans, living there today and, crucially, formulating its future? One had to believe the latter. And this belief was encouraged by the video footage of life as viewed by these young artists.
Senegal, for example, is the home of a young band featured in the series, playing a mix of ragga, rap and rock that might best be described as "world" music. Its members talked of chart success and overseas tours. They saved cash to buy equipment, they fell out with each other and showed off to the cameras. With their creative energies spent, they hung out and spoke out, about their hopes and visions. Africa suddenly ap-peared as a continent of people, not problems people with real lives and a real message about the future.
The issues that tend to rise to the surface in films about Africa were sometimes the backdrop to these programmes, but often they were also the inspiration for the artists themselves. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in South Africa, where political violence, racial divisions and the resultant suffering of black people helped inform the work of two young Johannesburg photographers, Themba Hadebe and Ruth Motau.
Both photographers were seen taking evocative images of family, friends and neighbours. Themba Hadebe is taking his interest further and runs workshops for ex-militant activists (and other youngsters) who, in his words, "can learn to shoot with a lens rather than a gun". Both photographers demonstrated prodigious talent, as well as insightful commentary. Both are committed to improving themselves, and their societies.
Running through the programmes were common threads. The music was one, linking the countries (Senegal, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa) with a lively, rhythmic and dynamic backdrop. Another is the young artists' connections with their families. One was left to wonder if British youth would take such pains to introduce their family members with such obvious care and tenderness.
Particularly impressive also was the strong sense of awareness that the young artists demonstrate. They took an interest in, and had an opinion on, a wide range of topics relating to their own nation's health. The British classroom audience, noted for political apathy and general diffidence, may find this rather surprising. The audience will not, however, have been able to ignore the maturity and wisdom of their African counterparts.
Finally, the artistic work was of the highest quality: wonderful music, excellent visual images and some spectacular and interesting dance and stage performances. For this alone the programmes were captivating.
As impressive celebrations of youth and its culture, these programmes should have a much wider appeal than the target geography audience. As reminders that Africa is a living, not a dying, continent, the programmes may also serve to overturn a number of stereotypes and refresh our optimism in the power and creativity of youth.