Monday, July 14, 2008

Ouaga Saga

2004, Burkina Faso/France, directed by Dani Kouyaté

Dani Kouyaté's third feature - after Keita! L'héritage du griot and Sia, le rêve du python - is one of the strongest recent movies I've seen from Africa, a film of tremendous energy and warmth that, sadly, hasn't received the distribution it deserves. While Kouyaté's previous films deal to a great degree with mythologies of the African past - and the ways in which they impact on the present - Ouaga Saga feels more determinedly modern, playing with mythologies of a very different kind, as it draws in images, in particular, from American popular cinema. In that, the film follows in an African filmmaking tradition set in motion by Djibril Diop Mambéty, a tradition likely to co-opt images and ideas from across different cultures - one of Mambéty's films is an adaptation of a Swiss play - and given sustained life by Cameroon's Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
Kouyaté's film makes reference to an extraordinary breadth of cinematic history, challenging some academic analyses of African cinema, which have a tendency to obscure the rich popular cinemas - American and Indian in particular - that also beguile African audiences and African filmmakers (I remember attending a question and answer with the Burkinabé director Fanta Regina Nacro, who mischievously upended a questioner by indicating that the main inspirations for her first short film were not from Africa at all, but rather from Chaplin and Hitchcock).

The first section of Ouaga Saga is reminiscent of sequences in Sembène's novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu and Tierno Monénembo's later work Cinéma, both of which underline the tremendous popularity of cowboy movies; in those novels, the characters throw plot points and favourite titles back in forth in a kind of conversational combat. Here, we see the cinema audience in an early scene transfixed by every gunfight and horseback chase, while later one of the characters - known as Sheriff, and clearly the most obsessive of the bunch - gives an account of a film viewing that conflates parts of The Magnificent Seven with The Wild Bunch and Gunfight at the OK Corral, and many more besides (that the audience is depicted in front of Rio Bravo, a film with little of the kind of action we see imitated, is perhaps just a filmmaker's in-joke).
Kouyaté's reference points aren't limited, however, to westerns, or to the West - later in the film, the title of one of Claire Denis's films, S'en fout la mort, which deals with African immigrants in France, is painted on a minibus, while one of Ouaga Saga's characters dresses in clothes that recall the male protagonist from Mambéty's Touki Bouki. What's remarkable about all this, though, is the expert way in which Kouyaté weaves the cinematic references into the fabric of the film so that they enhance rather than distract from his story: his film breathes deeply of the air of Ouagadougou, insisting on the idea that there's hope to be found in those streets too rather than simply in far away cinematic worlds.

Despite the global points of reference, explicitly celebrated in the film's conclusion, Kouyaté never loses sight of the specificity of his setting, and the economic realities - and institutional challenges - his characters are likely to face, but he refuses to envelope them in miserabilism, adopting instead the kind of upbeat, celebratory tone of the Congolese success La Vie est belle - notably one of the most successful of African films in Africa. If Kouyaté were able to get his film distributed - in Africa and elsewhere - he might find himself with a similar hit on his hands.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States