LOOKING FOR AFRICA
The documentary This Is My Africa has a moment of thrill for Nigerian viewers. It also has a moment of condescension. Within and around these moments director Zina Saro-Wiwa has fashioned an arty coterie of celebrities to talk about Africa, present their own versions of Africa by providing answers to: favourite African food? Favourite African film? Favourite African song? And so on. Interesting but also revealing: No one asks of favourite European song, thus Africa may be a country even to its citizens.
The concept is either a reduction of a continent, of widely disparate groups of people, joined by geography and a history of colonialism, to a few sentences by people who haven’t lived actively on the continent for a while, people with other homes in other climes. Or it could be for accessibility, the uttered words and preferences of food, film et al serving as tour guide for the prospective visitor. When one of the documentary’s subjects expresses a taste for fried plantain, somewhere a westerner is taking notes: “I must try this out,” she thinks.
Clearly This Is My Africa is This is their Africa for the resident African, who may stay put in one country, rather impecunious and too practical to head elsewhere; what the resident African sees is a film made about his surroundings for another’s pleasure. A travel guide produced without travelling.
Playful filmmaking and the charm of celebrity—save the snotty, cocked-head eccentricity of Yinka Shonibare—make it bearable for the resident African. Other subjects, mostly British, include Biyi Bandele, John Akomfrah, Paul Boateng, Mpho Sheif and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Ejiofor’s 12 Years a Slave co-star Lupita N’yong o’ steals the show and the heart of the Nigerian viewer when she dances to Asa’s Fire on the Mountain. Zina whose sister the writer Noo Saro-Wiwa, also interviewed here, wrote the supercilious travel book Looking for Transwonderland, supplies the condescension, offering the erstwhile typical Nollywood trailer for Blood Sisters while Akomfrah and others speak of their favourites—such acclaimed, genteel fare like Touki Bouki, Sex, Okra and Salted Butter as Nollywood’s example. Zina has spoken about an obsession with Nollywood; given a chance to show products of that obsession, she reaches for the bottom of the barrel, coming up with Blood Sisters.
The documentary is not without heart but that is left entirely to the subjects. Ejiofor throws filial nostalgia at the audience when he mention’s his father Arinze Ejiofor’s music as his favourite African song. It is John Akomfrah, however, who gets to the heart of the matter, who investigates the divide This Is My Africadoesn’t acknowledge: most Africans are too busy concerning themselves with ‘the oppressive worry of survival’.
Having escaped that Africa which she has staged via celebrity sound bites, it is a worry Zina Saro-Wiwa doesn’t have to deal with—and o how it shows.