Telling Stories From Africa

Written on May 20, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

(As published in the New York Times)


CANNES — Certain countries, indeed continents, are rarely invited to show their films at Cannes. This year, there is a sprinkling of African films in the official selection, but none in competition. And even in Africa, it seems, there is little room for African cinema.

Last weekend the Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, the French actress Juliette Binoche and the Cameroonian journalist Elisabeth Tchoungui presented "Cinemas for Africa," to fund a cinematheque and movie complex in Bamako. Mr. Sissako, who now lives in France, talked about the films he saw growing up in Mali.

"Many movie houses have become supermarkets or churches and today, an African film has no chance of being shown in Bamako," he said.

"I grew up mostly with Spaghetti Westerns that made me dream — images make dreams — a movie house is a school for all genres, not just cinéma d'auteur."

Three very different genres are in the official selection here. The great Malian director Souleymane Cissé's latest feature, "Min Ye" (international title: "Tell Me Who You Are"), about tensions in a bourgeois family in his native Bamako, was to be shown on Thursday.

The American Anne Aghion's prize-winning documentary "My Neighbor, My Killer," on the Rwandan genocide, portrays the confrontation between survivors and killers in the gacaca community tribunals.

And in the Un Certain Regard section, the Belgian-Dutch director Jean van de Velde's "The Silent Army," in Dutch, Swahili and English, comes from uncharted territory between documentary and fiction. Mr. van de Velde, who was born in Bukavu, Congo, and lived there until he was 14, returned to Africa to film this story about children of Uganda, abducted and marched off to the jungle by a charismatic and brutal leader to learn to murder in their turn.

His stirring movie comes from the heart of darkness. "There have only been three films made in Uganda," the filmmaker said. "'The African Queen,' 'The Last King of Scotland,' and now, 'The Silent Army.' We shot in Uganda to get the reality of the story. I wanted the people and the African imagery. I knew the child soldier issue, and stories about rebel leader Charles Taylor, but reality came when we researched accounts of 9- to 10-year-olds kids in shelters, abducted by rebels and won over by psychological terror."

The film opens with a scene of village life, with Abu (Andrew Kintu) and his friend Thomas (Siebe Schoneveld), the son of a local Dutch restaurant owner (Marco Borsato), watching TV and playing computer games together.

"I used a lot of the things I lived as a kid," said Mr. van de Velde. "We used to make radios out of wood, so Abu has his own wooden remote."

He said that there are less than 10 people in the movie business in Uganda. "And none are actors; most of them never saw a camera."

Hope Azeeda, the Rwandan casting director who had worked on Kevin MacDonald's "Last King of Scotland," about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, was a key partner, suggesting actors from that film: Abby Mukibi Nkaaga, who plays the rebel leader, and Andrew Kintu.

The director auditioned five boys for the part of Abu. "Once I saw Andrew, I knew I could work with him. He's endearing and smart — I love him."

The story inside "The Silent Army" resembles a family story of abuse: the children are mesmerized by their abuser, the man they call "Daddy," and are transformed into fanatic followers, obedient killers. "By the end, Abu is ready to put on the shoes of the rebel leader."

On the shoot, the young actor surprised his director by suggesting a scene in which he takes a gun and fires on families hiding in a church. "I was taken aback at first, but I knew he was right."

This is not about ideology. "The leader says he wants to rule the country according to the Ten Commandments, but he has no ideology," Mr. van de Velde said. "And not even that much sex," because he and the other kidnappers "are scared of HIV."

Mr. van de Velde, 52, was precocious. At age 17, he entered Amsterdam's Film Academy. "Hubert Bals of the Rotterdam Festival picked up my first films — I was 20 and holding a press conference!"

He likes movies with an emotional center, "like Anthony Minghella's 'The English Patient' — there's too much of everything in it, but it's a big gesture. Members of our crew had worked on his last film, a BBC production, that he was shooting in Botswana before he died."

Since the jungle doesn't have the roads needed for the central part of the story, the filmmaker took his actors and crew to South Africa to film the second half of the movie. "The South African kids were on their cellphones and cameras, shooting like Tarantino," he said. "I flew in 40 Ugandans because I knew that inside, in their genes, they have a story."


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