African Film and Literature: Adapting Violence to the Screen

September 3, 2009

The title of Lindiwe Dovey's first monograph promises more than it can possibly deliver. This is not a synoptic study of African film or African literature, but a series of cogently focused case studies of several instances of literary works (African as well as European and ancient) that have been adapted for film by directors, white and black alike, from African countries.

The first half focuses on four adaptations of apartheid-era South African texts, including Gavin Hood's Oscar-winning 2005 adaptation of Athol Fugard's only novel Tsotsi (1980) and Darrell Roodt's 1995 adaptation of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). The second half of the book examines three films from Francophone West Africa that all adapt what Dovey describes as "canonical literary texts" - these include Karmen Gei (2001), Senegalese director Joseph Gai Ramaka's adaptation of Carmen, as well as La Genese (1999), Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko's adaptation of Genesis. Dovey's book is thus as much about the productive appropriation of non-African literature by African directors as it is about adaptations of African literature, broadly construed.

Dovey rationalises the book's organisation as "a comparative study of a national ... and a regional ... cinema" as a way of investigating "African identities in a range of geographical configurations". Really, this is a book about film culture in various African contexts and the negotiation of violence on screen, in films that happen to be adaptations, and happen, in the process of adapting, to reappropriate their source materials for different ends. Dovey seeks specifically to understand how "violence is represented and critiqued" in the films analysed, in ways that "work against continuing violence, thus problematising representations of Africa as inherently violent, and contributing to the ongoing construction of Africa itself".

Careful to acknowledge how problematic any conception of a monolithic "African cinema" is, she is also conscious of the fraught history of this particular medium on the continent. Cinema, she reminds us, arrived in Africa "hand in hand with brutal colonisation, and with patronising and racist censorship and exhibition policies". It was used as a tool of colonisation under the guise of a "civilising" mission at the same time that films about Africa sought to represent the continent as "a savage, fabricated backdrop peopled by violent tribes with heathen rituals".

There is much of interest here, and Dovey is at her best in analyses of gender representations in Tsotsi and Karmen Gei. Her attention to the industrial and institutional problems that vex film production, artistry and accessibility on the continent (and, in particular, in South Africa, where her analyses are most assured) is timely and welcome, as is her discussion of and willingness to consider alternative modes of distribution other than conventional cinema release. While she is concerned with nuancing the category of "African film" (she prefers the more capacious term "African screen media"), it is not always clear what her parameters are. Films produced in apartheid South Africa are classed (and largely dismissed) as "colonial" rather than African, even if they were made in a spirit of opposition to the regime.

In her framework, "African film" is that which is produced "by sub-Saharan Africans", yet it is by no means clear if she means this as a racial, ethnic or geographical (and thus potentially non-racial) classification. She does, for example, implicitly allow Roodt and Hood, both white directors, into her category of "African" directors, ostensibly only because their films were made after South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994.

A more direct acknowledgement of the mutability of the label "African" itself would have allowed Dovey to probe how films classed as such in the global marketplace are often valorised in proportion to how closely they meet Western expectations of what "African" means.

African Film and Literature: Adapting Violence to the Screen

By Lindiwe Dovey. Columbia University Press 360pp, £62.00 and £22.50. ISBN 9780231147545 and 147552. Published 29 May 2009

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