Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Elusive Close-Up

(Posted as part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door)

(2006, Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako)

The close-up in films from sub-Saharan Africa is a story as much of absence as of presence - an absence that results from a quite conscious aesthetic choice on the part of many directors. As with so much of the history of post-independence cinema in Africa, at least in francophone Africa, it's possible to trace this choice back to the director known almost universally as the "father" of African cinema, Senegal's Ousmane Sembène. Although his first feature, La Noire de... features a number of close-ups at critical moments - perhaps most notably a shot where a handheld camera precedes the protagonist as she runs, tear-stained, from a room - as Sembène matured as a filmmaker he began to move away from such tightly focused shots, showing a strong preference instead for the medium and long shot. Critics like Manthia Diawara have tended to link this technique to the oral tradition in African storytelling; in this reading, Sembène occupies the position of a griot, observing his characters from a greater distance, and clearly indicating the physical spaces in which they interact.

La Noire de... (1966, Senegal, Ousmane Sembène)

As the academic critic Josephine Woll has written, it's also possible that this preference for the medium and long shot derives from the cinematic training that Sembène received in the Soviet Union during the early 1960's; Woll has unearthed similar stylistic choices in the work of filmmakers like Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, whose films would have been much used for training purposes. Sembène's influence on those who followed him - it's hard to find a meaty interview with an African filmmaker before 1990 that doesn't mention Sembène, mostly in reverent tones - was such that subsequent shot choices might perhaps have been made, even unconsciously, in the shadow of the Senegalese master.

Yeelen (1987, Mali, Souleymane Cissé)

That's not to say, of course, that the close-up is absent from films from Africa, more that it is used in sparing fashion: Souleymane Cissé, another Soviet-trained filmmaker, uses extreme close-ups, particularly on ritual objects, in his 1987 film Yeelen, for example, though the majority of the film shows a preference for longer shots (both in terms of camera placement and time). By contrast, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a near contemporary of Cissé's who received his training in France, has shown a strong bias against the close-up, a shot choice which he feels to be a typically "American" technique at odds with an African style based on orality; his 1989 film Finzan is notable for the almost complete absence of such shots. As Teshome K. Gabriel has written, for many directors from Africa - or the broader Third World in Teshome's view - the close-up is seen to be unnatural as it calls attention to itself, and eliminates wider social considerations, a theme that is central to the work of African filmmakers until the late 1980s, at which point it's possible to trace the emergence of a more consciously "popular" streak of filmmaking, less chary of using Western commercial cinema as a reference point, and consequently more open, among other things, to the close-up.

(1996, Guinea, Mohamed Camara)

Given this generally spare attitude to the use of the close-up, particularly in more "artistic" African filmmaking, Mohamed Camara's 1997 film Dakan upends tradition in a number of ways. Best known as the first sub-Saharan African film on the subject of homosexuality, it's also an aesthetically daring project, with tight, sometimes claustrophobic shots not simply of faces - as well as shot/reverse shot combinations that are unusual in African cinema - but also extreme close-ups on body parts: an eye, a nose, lips, often enhancing the film's fraught atmosphere (unfortunately, given the difficulty of finding a copy of the film there are few images to illustrate this). In many ways, Dakan hearkens back to the work of the great Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose work can't easily be squeezed into any particular tradition, and who makes startling use of close-ups on faces, hands and inanimate objects in his 1973 film Touki-Bouki, another film with moments of intense sensuality, a rarity in sub-Saharan African filmmaking.

(1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Most recently, Abderrahmane Sissako has developed his own unique aesthetic: another filmmaker trained in the Soviet Union, his films combine languid observation in long and medium shot - conversations often feature both speakers rather than switching back and forth - with prolonged close-ups, whether he is filming an unfortunate parade of people attempting to use the unreliable village telephone in his wonderful 1998 La Vie sur terre or when holding the camera, to mesmerizing effect, on the witnesses who take the stand, or the locals who move in the same orbit, in his more recent Bamako.

(In addition to those critics whose work is cited above, I'm indebted to work by Jonathan Haynes, Roy Armes, and Françoise Pfaff).

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