The films would have to be recent and important, and ideally the screenings would include the director for Q & A afterward.
This year the two films chosen were Half a Yellow Sun (dir. Biyi Bandele, original book Chimamanda Adichie) and Confusion Na Wa (dir. Kenneth Gyang). The choice of these films was made after I consulted with a number of African film specialists, as I have done every year.
Half a Yellow Sun was actually chosen for a screening at the time that the Nigerian Censor Board had forbidden its screening in Nigeria. It deals with the Biafran War, and is largely centered on the lives of a number of key individuals involved in the war. It is not a documentary, not a bio-pic, but a dramatization of the war as seen through the lives of primarily two couples. The first issue that influenced this choice was that the film was based on a major recent novel, Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, and it represented her venturing into cinema so as to extend her extraordinarily successful emergence as a novelist. The novel was particularly important for Africanists because of her treatment of the war—still a highly controversial subject–and the novel’s great success. The film became a crucial addition to the corpus of writings and films dealing with Biafra, a subject of intense importance to many of our colleagues, and certain one of interest for many teaching topics revolving around its subject matter. It was directed by one of Africa’s more important authors, Biyi Bandele, who made a considerable splash as a novelist when he was younger. The cast included major African stars. So many reasons made it important to make this film available for our attendees to view. Bandele had agreed to come, but a few weeks before the showing his shooting schedule in Nigeria made it impossible for him to come, and it was not possible to have Adichie come to replace him. The attendance was quite good, nonetheless.
The second film was screened because it represents quite well perhaps the most significant development in recent African filmmaking. (I must confess that I tried to bring Sissako’s Timbuktu, but as it was opening in Europe (to enormous success), Sissako refused our request.) Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa represents one of the most exciting works coming from Nigeria in recent years. It is very sophisticated, its cinematography striking, its plot exciting, its direction and plot very compelling. This is “New Nollywood” in one of its most exciting iterations. It is crucial that we now engage fully this amazing phenomenon called Nollywood. The designation “New” signifies a greater sophistication in production post-production, concept, and execution of the script. In other words, we have the elements of Nollywood, founded in commercial filmmaking, marked by the genre elements that have come to define that body of works, along with its acting style, and its aesthetic. However, the greater sophistication marks what some call the “professionalism” of the New Nollywood films, not simply because there is now more money, more time, and more professional acting going into the films, but because there is more talent being seen in those directors, like Gyang, Afolayan, Amadi, and others now competing with Kelani for the honor of major talent, and whose works are making their mark on the national and also international stage.
Luckily Kenneth Gyang was able to attend the showing, and his q&a afterwards was everything I would have wanted: great questions and answers, a wonderful experience for a good sized audience. We learned about his training, his background, the choices made in the shooting, the constraints placed upon him—key issues and a good community participation.
It is generally going to be my policy to try to bring more women directors and if possible to balance Francophone and Anglophone cinema, along with films made in African languages. It isn’t always possible to obtain films that satisfy these conditions, but over the years that will be the goal. And most of all, I want to present films that people will consider important and valuable for them in their teaching and research. It might well be that these showings will present the only opportunity many will have to see these films, films like Half a Yellow Sun, about which they might have read a lot, but not had a chance to see. Ultimately the goal is not simply to choice the films for academic reasons, but because they represent important works of cinema, with African cinema increasingly valued and present in our conferences.
Kenneth Harrow is Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University. He received a B.S. from M.I.T., a Master’s in English from NYU and a Ph D in Comparative Literature also from NYU. His work focuses on African cinema and literature, Diaspora and Postcolonial Studies. He is the author of Thresholds of Change in African Literature (Heinemann, 1994), Less Than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 2002), and Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Indiana U P, 2007). His latest work, Trash! A Study of African Cinema Viewed from Below, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013. He has edited numerous collections on such topics as Islam and African literature (including Faces of Islam in African Literature,1991), African cinema (including African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings, 1999), and women in African literature and cinema. He has published more than 50 articles and a dozen chapters. He has organized numerous conferences dealing with African literature and cinema. He served as President of the African Literature Association, and was honored with their first Distinguished Member Award. He has also been honored with the Distinguished Faculty Award at Michigan State University. In 2011 he was awarded the Distinguished Africanist Award at the Toyina Falola Annual Conference, University of Texas.