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Cinematic Self-Representation(s) of the Afro-European Experience

Aboubakar S. Sanogo

I would like to propose a paper on the cinematic self-representation of Afro-Europeans over the last two decades (1980s through now). Indeed, since the eighties there has been a consistent and self-conscious seizure and deployment of the means of cinematic representation by descendants of Africans in Europe to represent their stories and histories, the specificity of their cultural contribution to Europe, and the notion that the idea of Europe an experience cannot be discussed without putting the African experience on that continent as a central feature. As a result, an increasing number of films in both fictional and documentary modes have been and are still being made which cast an illuminating lens on experiences not well-known to the public or simply not documented at all.

In that sense these films are contributing a new and more complex historiography of Europe as well as helping bring about an indispensable identity crisis into the heart of Europe, its mythologies and self-image. This reversal of situation is not without irony since the European encounter with Africa on African soil had also generated similar responses in the last two centuries.

This paper will thus look at films from three different European countries by African descendants of dual nationality who have successfully articulated a sense of European Africanness in their filmic works. The filmmakers under consideration are John Akomfrah (Great Britain/Ghana) with "Handsworth Songs" (1985), "Who Needs a Heart" (1991), "The Last Angel of History" (1995) and "Speak Like a Child" (1998) Mama Keita (France/Guinea) with "Ragazzi" (1990), "The Eleventh Commandment" ( 1997) and "Paris la metisse" (2004) and Branwen Okpako (Germany/Nigeria) with "Love, Love Liebe"(1998), "Dirt for Dinner" ( 2001) and "The Valley of the Innocent" (2003).

The paper will analyze the ways in which these directors position their works in relation to the specific countries their films are set in. It will seek to explore the types of narrative tropes and symbolic figures that inhabit their respective imaginaries as they seek to represent an Afro-European identity. The paper will in addition investigate both at the specific and the general level the ways in which their relationship to Africa (Keita, Akmofrah, Okpako), to other European minorities (Keita) and to the larger African diaspora (Akomfrah) are figured in their works. Moreover, the pape
r will look at the manners in which these films, which display a wide range of thematic concerns and formal approaches to cinema, are positioned within the cinematic traditions of Europe. Finally, the paper will, in light of these case studies, propose a theoretical model for what an Afro-European cinema could/should/might be.

I am currently preparing a Ph.D. dissertation on the history of documentary in Africa, at the USC School of Cinema-Television in Los Angeles, CA. Writing this paper will help shape my thinking about the documentary tradition that emerged from theories and practices of Afro-European documentary filmmakers to whom I intend to devote a chapter.

Questions for the workshop on Representing Black European History

  1. How do/will Afro-European directors imagine/represent the move toward a Pan-European unity?

  2. What is the status of Pan-Africanism in the discussion on Afro-European history and identity?

  3. Do Afro-European filmmakers have any role to play in the construction of Africa?

  4. In what ways could historians and filmmakers work together to provide more comprehensive and complex representations of the Afro-European experience?

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