Bekolo’s cinema is not just “African,” or postcolonial, or experimental, or narrative. It is also a cinema that constantly searches for itself, for what it is and what it can accomplish.
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Jean-Pierre Obama Bekolo, born in 1966 in Cameroon, is perhaps the most daring contemporary West African director. Bekolo provides a bridge between the old guard, the pioneers of (West) African cinema – Ousmane Sembène, Djibril-Diop Mambety, Safi Faye (all from Senegal), Souleymane Cissé (Mali) – and a new class of gifted filmmakers – Abderrahmane Sissako (Mali), Moussa Touré (Senegal), and Mahamat Haroun Saleh (Chad), among others.
Bekolo’s personal style is hard to pin down. His filmmaking is idiosyncratic; it exhibits biting humor through a reliance on satire, avoids didacticism, and advocates for artistic freedom. The director favors expression over “education” (in his words, “there is no recipe to filmmaking”),1 over the formalities and classical conventions of cinema. His formal training was originally in editing, and he studied in Paris at the Institut National Audiovisuel as part of the last graduating class of structuralist Christian Metz. His narrative construction does pay homage to the structuralism of the seventies, and it often comes across as purposely opaque, which critics of African film have construed as an attempt to create a new kind of African cinematic language. But Bekolo transgresses geographical and aesthetic borders. His cinema is not just “African,” or postcolonial, or experimental, or narrative. It is also a cinema that constantly searches for itself, for what it is and what it can accomplish.
This article will briefly consider Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s overall career before examining his latest effort, Naked Reality (2016), a purposely unfinished work that echoes the absurdist theater of the sixties and proposes that cinema should not yield finalized products because that goes against its very nature.
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Among his admitted influences, Djibril-Diop Mambety and Spike Lee stand out – two cross-Atlantic aesthetic pillars that helped shape his early career. Bekolo has made insightful documentaries, such as Grandmother’s Grammar (1996) on Mambety, and Les Choses et les Mots de Mudimbe (Mudimbe’s Order of Things, 2015), a tour de force clocking in at over four hours on the renowned Congolese philosopher. He has also made tongue-in-cheek documentaries, such as A la recherche d’Obama perdu (Looking for the Lost Obama, 2015), in which he explores the conspiracy theory that President Obama has distant roots in a remote Cameroonian village, where everyone shares a physical trait (larger ears) with the commander in chief.2
His last documentary, The President (2013), flirts with the subgenre of the mockumentary, and it was banned in Cameroon for its incisive satire of African leaders who cling to power too long. The film imagines the disappearance of the 31-year president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, without directly naming him. It is worth noting that the political commentary of this film and others may in fact be a mask for constant inquiry into the state of cinema, its role, and its narrative capabilities. Here’s what Bekolo has to say about this in a 2012 interview with Slate Afrique: “It is the first time that a movie has to remove a President. Cinema always arrives afterwards [for example] to tell us about the Arab Spring. Where was it before? Cinema must anticipate, open new doors and make the revolutions. I do not want to tell people what happened, but I want to inspire those who will make something happen.”3 It is through this kind of unorthodox thinking that Bekolo’s cinema tests the boundaries of cinematic representation.
In spite of his prodigious output in the documentary genre, Bekolo is best known internationally for three feature-length films, Quartier Mozart (1992), Aristotle’s Plot (1996), and Les Saignantes (2005). In the first one, he presents a complex version of the urban space of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, by relying on quasi hip-hop storytelling (indebted to the aforementioned Spike Lee) to talk about gender, power, and politics. The film, which focuses on a young girl who is magically transformed into a Casanova of sorts nicknamed “My Guy,” blends fantasy and farce, employs bold colors, fast-paced editing, and often breaks the fourth wall. The second film emerges quite naturally from the last characteristic of the first because it is essentially a meta-film, a meditation on “African film.” Aristotle’s Plot perhaps offered the inspiration for Naked Reality, because this is the moment when Bekolo begins to wonder “aloud” about what a film rid of rigid categories and rules would look like. At the denouement of Aristotle’s Plot, all the characters (named after real or fictitious action stars – Van Damme, Nikita, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee – who ignite a conversation about African spectatorship and the influence of Hollywood) die in a classic Hollywood shoot-em-up ending. The twist is that they are brought back to life for an alternate ending, so film becomes a surreal farce in which reality and fiction become indistinguishable. The result is both hilarious and revealing in terms of narrative possibilities.
Bekolo says of the film: “I am from Cameroon, and I think humor and satire are basic elements of culture. As I was reading The Poetics (Aristotle), I realized something was missing – comedy. That is why I became paranoid, as the title Aristotle’s Plot seems to indicate. So, the ‘plot’ is not just the plot in storytelling, but also the subplot” (interview, Ukadike 2002: 229).
Finally, Les Saignantes (a title difficult to translate – The Bleeders comes closest – because the word does not exist in the French language) is a sci-fi that follows two women and their struggle with authority in a future Cameroon. It combines themes of power, corruption, mysticism, and vampirism. The last two remain at a metaphorical stage: the powerful men who lead the country suck it dry; the women try to balance the power out by using magic and their bodies to steal from or even kill these men. The film is shot entirely at night, with a Beta-cam that gives it an evocative grainy texture. Bekolo introduces several intertitles that feature rhetorical questions addressed to the audience (e.g., “How to make a film that anticipates [a sci-fi], in a country with no future”?), a gesture that anticipates the extra-filmic world of Naked Reality.
Bekolo persistently pushes the limits of representation (“I know I crossed boundaries,” says the main character of Naked Reality, confirming the director’s own quest) as he searches for new ways to tell a story. This latest film, as mentioned earlier, is presented to the world as an unfinished product but not a typical one. Bekolo invites everyone to contribute their craft, their ideas, their fantasy to this concept film on a website designed especially for collaborative purposes (you can check it out here: http://nakedreality-thefilm.com/).
Naked Reality is easily the most difficult film to date in Bekolo’s filmography. Shot in black and white, this hour-long experiment follows a vague plot: the main character, Wanita (Weza Da Silva), is on a search for her identity. As it is often the case in Bekolo’s work, the personal identity of the character is but the smallest manifestation of an identity struggle for an entire people, and the identity struggle of the film itself, of the process of filmmaking, which in this case is literally trying to form itself before our eyes. This is an “afrofuturistic/sci-fi” film, as the website describes it, taking place 150 years in the future when the human race is plagued by a terrible virus – “bad luck.” The main character seemingly travels back and forth between the present and the future, and also carries on conversations with ancestors as well as with alternate selves, like Wanita Bis, who wants to be a television star. But the ultimate goal of the film is a philosophical and aesthetic exploration of the dividing line between fiction and reality, which is perhaps Bekolo’s main artistic interest. Among the director’s memorable lines on the topic, consider the following: “We shouldn’t just be making movies, we should be changing reality.”4
Naked Reality relies on a few visual tricks that support the material split between reality and fiction. The black and white creates a stylized atmosphere that, through sharp contrasts, aggressively suggests the future. It also brings to mind experimentation, but at a formal level, it points to a lack (through the implicit lack of color). And this is a film that is indeed missing various parts. The dualism at work here is reinforced in the director’s choice of the superimposition. This is a transition effect used to link up two shots that overlap for a few seconds, but in this film the superimpositions last unusually long (by classical cinema conventions). A low-angle shot that travels under the trees returns several times to provide the characters with a kind of visual base on which to build another scene. Since the film lacks traditional sets, the visual splits and fills that void of materiality with itself, as it were. There are also several upside-down shots and a few edited through a negative filter – the reverse of the initial reality. Characters also speak to each other as they peek from behind a curtain, shot through a grainy filter.
These shots evoke the film’s peeking behind the proverbial curtain of filmmaking (i.e., revealing the cinematic apparatus) and the ubiquitous green screen used in mainstream cinema to manufacture realities that do not exist in the diegetic space of the film.
Reality is clearly under question throughout the film, but perhaps the key scene that exemplifies this occurs at the very end as Wanita carries on a dialogue with Madiba (Akin Omotoso), a sort of Wise Man who may be just a figment of her imagination.
Madiba asks Wanita where she thinks she finds herself. Her answer, “I don’t know” eventually morphs into “I have no idea” and finally into “I don’t care.” Then she specifies that “I care about reality,” at which point Bekolo cuts to another angle of the two characters, and the last word, “reality,” is spoken out again almost as if it were an echo. This is an actual doubling of the word that clearly points to the double reality of the film. The Wise Man repeats the word himself and then goes into a soliloquy about the nature of reality. According to him, it is first a prism because it is ever-changing. By extrapolation, the film itself is thus reality, as it, too, is ever changing. Then Madiba looks into the camera, superimposed on the oft-used traveling shot under the trees, which offers the audience another doubling moment (i.e., two moving images that co-exist). The final version of Madiba’s definition of reality is as follows: “When you look in that mirror, reality stares back at you reminding you of the world that you want to be in; reality is a sordid reminder of the world that you’re in now.” The metaphor of the mirror as screen may be a bit on the nose, as two realities emerge – that of the screen, the desirable one, and that around us, the undesirable one. It reminds us of an earlier moment when Wanita watches herself on a screen to the right of the frame.
The two Wanitas speak simultaneously, and initially they say the exact same words, but there is a slight delay between the “real” Wanita to the left of the screen, our character, and the fictionally doubly removed Wanita to the right. These are two possible realities chasing each other, trying to catch up with one another but always slightly out of sync, which is the perfect metaphor for the relationship between cinema and reality: they can never perfectly overlap. Finally, the questions Wanita asks herself, “Who are you, why are you here,” are initial hints toward the ending when we (sort of) get an answer.
Wanita’s uncertainty about where she finds herself and her subsequent aloof attitude are typical traits of the absurdist, Beckettian characters, who are always lost, always torn from reality, and in constant miscommunication. The theater of the absurd of the sixties was about the impossibility to communicate, which was evident in the relationship between the characters on stage, but also in the unseen relationship between author, play, and audience; Naked Reality continues in that vein but also adds the impossibility of representation, of being able to show on screen what is “real.” Moreover, this particular cinematic product also seems to be waiting for something to happen, just as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon wait for “Godot” – a stand-in for a nebulous something.5 That something likely refers to the end: the characters, alongside the audience, just wait for the end of the play, but also for their own end, or the end of existence, since existentially speaking (in the philosophical sense) that is what we are all doing after all.
The reference to Beckett is hardly gratuitous, given the film’s overall tone and theatrical setup. In most scenes, the characters appear to be on minimalist or even empty theater stages. No set is finished, which is purposeful: again, the concept-film invites audiences to finalize the work of the director, to enter an artistic dialogue that would eventually yield a closer-to-done-but-never-quite-so project. The main idea behind this experiment, then, seems to be that there is no end of the road, there is no final film. Film just tries to be. So, if Beckett’s world points to a breakdown in communication and reminds us of the futility of existence, Bekolo’s world attempts to heal communication, to break barriers, and to mesh the worlds of fiction and reality. This amounts to the ultimate breakdown of the fourth wall. Yes, characters can look into the camera and address the audience (the theater of the absurd did so repeatedly), and yet the actual physical space between the audience and the screen has always remained a virgin territory. How would a spectator from the audience alter the physical reality of the film on screen?6 It would appear that Bekolo gives his spectators the chance to reach inside the film they are watching and change its reality. Moreover, Bekolo inserts himself into the film but does not say anything, so he essentially becomes a spectator. Clearly, this is not a typical cameo. From the right of the frame, directorial headphones on, he simply observes Wanita pass through a door into another naked reality of sorts or, as the film stands right now, a door to nowhere.
His hands are in his pockets, which suggests passivity, but that is hardly the case. He touches the film from within, and the audience can join him if they choose. In other words, Bekolo takes us a step closer to virtual (naked) reality cinema.
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Note: Thanks to director Jean-Pierre Bekolo for providing screenshots from Naked Reality for this article.
- Conference-style presentation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, March 2016. [↩]
- As evident in the director’s full name, “Obama” is a popular name in Cameroon. [↩]
- http://www.slateafrique.com/99013/blancs-reviennent-en-afrique-jean-pierre-bekolo-cinema-cameroun [↩]
- Jean-Pierre Bekolo and Simon Burt, “Welcome to Applied Fiction,” The Journal of Cinema and Media, 49, No. 2 (2008), 108. [↩]
- “Godot” has been thought to refer to God, but Beckett denied such a link, saying that if he had meant “God” he would have written God. [↩]
- I argue elsewhere that such a change is theoretically possible via the sound produced by an audience. See, “The Aural Fold and the Sonic Jump-cut: Godard’s Baroque Sound,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 29.3, Spring 2012, 237-251. [↩]