Sleeping Tigers: African cinema re-imagined

Posted on November 02, 2023

“Enriching experiences”, according to the panellists who were part of the discussion panel for the film Dark Waters and spoke about their experiences of the Tigritudes Film Festival. The term Tigritude, coined by author Wole Soyinka, is used to define African cinema as revolutionary and defying easy classification. This is a cinematic genre that is not defined by its opposition to Western cinematic cannons but rather by its flexibility and adaptability. The author was inspired by filmmaker Sarah Maldoror's revolutionary perspective on cinema and her ties to the Nēgritude movement. The Tigritdes Film Festival was hosted by the Javett-UP Art Centre this year from the 26th of September to the 10th of October, with a different film selection for each day of the event. The festival showcased African cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, which remain largely unknown to South African audiences.

Curator and Public Engagement Programs manager Lweendo Hamukoma speaks about what went into organising the Tigritudes Film Festival. As a representative of the venue partners, Lweendo Hamukoma has access to screening spaces, for example, the Javett-UP auditorium, which has the relevant equipment that made the screenings possible. In the organisation process, partners are found through film clubs, and members of the respective production teams are invited to speak to the audience about their films during the screenings. For Hamukoma, it is important to have the filmmakers involved in the screening process because "it personalises the film". On a more personal note, Hamukoma speaks to the importance of including films where black filmmakers are represented:

"It’s really important for me to have mentorship and see people who look like [me] doing the work that [I] want to do”.

The film Dark Waters (1956), co-written and directed by Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, was included in the Tigritudes Film Festival because the event was “50 years of African cinema curated per decade”. What Hamukoma appreciated about Tigritudes is that their film selection is not based on the historical setting they depict but on films produced in the 1950s and 1960s. 

On the 30th of September, film historian Dr Gairoonisa Paleker and history graduate students Motlatjo Mogoboya, Aiden Schutte, Boitumelo Mboweni, Justine Binedell and PhD candidates Ruby McGregor-Langley and Duncan Lotter from the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, participated in a panel discussion on the film Dark Waters. Aiden Schutte started the conversation by bringing both the audiences’ and fellow panellists’ attention to the “culturally restorative elements of the film, more specifically [linked to the film’s title]”, Dark Waters, which is an allegory for Egypt's dark period of colonisation as well as the main character, Ragab's, internal struggle. Ruby McGregor-Langley shifted the discussion to question the meaning of the Tigritudes movement and its deliberate selection of the film Dark Waters as a part of its movement. In this regard, Ms McGregor-Langley concludes: “Dark Waters is a great case study as it draws from elements of first cinema, second cinema, particularly elements of auteur theory and Italian Neorealism, as well as the third cinema canon. Therefore, the phrase coined by Wole Soyinka, “a tiger does not proclaim its identity”, suits Dark Waters as it is reminiscent of different cinematic styles.

Motlatjo Mogoboya raised an important question on the violence that characterised the relationship between the main characters, Ragab and Hamedah. Given the historical and cultural context of patriarchy, was this violence, according to Ms Mogoboya, a form of violent ‘discipline’ or GBV? In this regard, Ms Mogoboya pointed to the fact that “the camera lens was used to guide the audience through a predominately masculine point of view”. Curator Lweedo Hamukoma expanded on this by alluding to the scarcity of the female characters’ voices. Justine Binedell introduced the theme of family dynamics that were presented in the film. To this point, Ms Binedell focused on some key historical elements that informed Egyptian film and cinema, especially on the point of honour in Muslim societies. According to Ms Binedell, “Ragab’s character was used to present a masculine provider who carried the burden of reinforcing gender and familial honour stereotypes.”

Duncan Lötter shifted the conversation to the thematic elements of masculinity as being performative and a “means of force”, linking the ideas of violence to different forms of masculine expression. Mr Lötter then brought both the audiences’ and panellists’ attention to the fact that the director, Youssef Chahine, uses “the character of Mamdouh to illustrate masculinity without the use of aggressive expression”. Boitshoko Mboweni ended the discussion panel by introducing the concept of colonial displacement and its significance to the film. “Due to colonial displacement, [Ragab] returns to a society that is totally foreign to him”.

For the panel members, the film festival was a fruitful endeavour despite technical difficulties. The discussion panel was described as an enriching experience. Unfortunately, the entire film could not be screened to the audience before the panel discussion, complicating participation. One thing is certain: these kinds of discussion panels hosted by the Javett-UP Art Centre in collaboration with Tigritudes are precisely what the South African film scene needs to start bridging the gap between academia and the film industry.

- Author Motlatjo Mogoboya

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