An Introduction to Sub-Saharan Francophone African Cinema

Francophone cinema constitutes the film production from French-speaking countries from around the globe, which form a united and unified artistic body, untouched by the Hollywood canon. It is also a distinct entity away from the sovereign state of France itself, with French cinema and literature being excluded from the Francophone movement. The Francophone cinema benefits from the label of the French auteurist cinema, a non-commercial and artistic education in filmmaking. The aspect of language pervades the notion of Francophone cinema, since ‘France and the colonies were a family, bound by the French language and culture’ (Andrade-Watkins in Spass: 2). The –phone suffix is a term borrowed from linguistics and pertains to the country’s colonial history and the enforcing of French as the lingua franca, in relation to Francophone. The inclusion of the French language adheres to the belief of universality and a superiority of the language, serving to marginalize and silence the native language and culture.

The concept of Francophone has linguistic, cultural and geographic connotations. The ACCT (Agence de la cooperation culturelle et technique) was established in 1970 as a means of founding a technical and cultural support network to the former French colonies. This organization, renamed Agence de la Francophonie, ‘has become a world-wide organization with fifty-two members from Europe, North Africa, Black Africa, Arabia, Asia and North America’ (Spass: 2). It has therefore become a global institution in the preservation of French colonial influence. 

Cinema represents a neo-colonial existence within the countries of the former French Empire. The extension of the colonial legacy has become synonymous with the Francophone ideal, since ‘cinema became the main cultural instrument to safeguard France’s hold over the former colonies: colonization of the territories was replaced by that of the screens’ (Spass: 3). This aspect of colonialism places an importance upon drawing on post-colonial theory in order to explore the impact of European colonialism and its legacy on cultural production in Europe and its former colonies. It represents a re-claiming of colonial history and memory and in the case of France; it included the Mission civilization a prise, which concerned the ‘giving’ of culture, systems of administration and education. There are however problems with this concept of postcolonial theory, since it ‘blurs the assignment of perspectives’ and elides the ‘relations of force’ and ‘brutal coercive application of power’ that characterized colonial rule. In addition, the theory obscures ‘the deformative traces of the colonial hangover in the present’ and the ‘post’ implies that colonialism is over (Stam: 294-295). However, within the context of Francophone cinema, colonialism is omnipresent from the levels of production to exhibition.     


A dichotomy has begun to emerge in relation to the power associated to the French language and the articulation of French culture within Francophone cinema. In relation to Sub-Saharan African cinema, there has been a gradual phasing out of the language and these cinemas have begun to resort back to their native languages and cultures. The Sub-Saharan cinemas are marked by the struggle of identity, dispelling ‘the ongoing promotion of French-ness and the affirmation of a French identity through cinema’ that ‘would inevitably impede the development of an African identity’ (Spass: 3). It serves to highlight the imposition of the French language upon the colonized. In relation to Quebec and Belgium, there is an importance thrust upon the French language as a facet of defining their identity and supporting them in a self-affirmation. The language is a fundamental source of difference for this population, defining their otherness.

The Francophone influence in Africa can be separated into two distinct categories, the Maghreb and the Sub-Saharan Africa. The Maghreb constitutes the three countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, which are all linked by the common religion of Islam and the common language of Arabic. The region is unique in its cultural and geographical positioning, since it has Berber origins, which was resistant to the Arab invasion and is separated from Europe by the Mediterranean and from Black Africa by the Sahara. However, the effects of the French colonialism varied between the countries, with Algeria suffering the more extreme effects of colonialism. The impact of the Maghreb has been prominent within French cinema, since there are close ties between the two due to ongoing patterns of migration to France from the Maghreb. The French screen has therefore contained a strong Maghrebi influence in filmmaking, for examples films such as Bye-Bye (Karim Dridi, 1996). Tunisia was also the site of the first African film festival, promoting the internationalization of African cinema through the successful biannual African cinema event, Journees de Carthage.

The Francophone countries of Sub-Saharan Africa contain a shared negative colonial history and are subjected to a Western cultural hegemony. Even the international success of African filmmakers is attributed to the European-ness of their work, for example, the works of Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese filmmaker, are read as a ‘cross-fertilization between European language writing and African filmmaking’ (Petty in Spass: 172).  The films of these countries are viewed upon a continental scale rather than a national scale and are grouped into the Francophone linguo-cultural community. It is under a European dependence for production, distribution and exhibition. In terms of funding, ‘European television is a major source of funding and distribution for independent films, but it is reluctant to broadcast African films’ (Teno). There are events on French television that promote African films, yet ‘they also serve to inevitably ghettoize and marginalize African films’ (Teno).  

The Francophone label is important in relation to distribution, because ‘Francophone grouping provides a wider channel for distribution’ (Spass: 131). The establishing of film festivals in Africa enables a visibility for the filmmakers and provides an avenue of critical acclaim and exhibition. As a consequence, there has been a success in terms of critical acclaim associated with Francophone African cinema and filmmakers, since ‘films directed by Africans in the former French colonies are superior, both in quantity and quality, to those by directors in other sub-Saharan African countries formerly colonized by the British, the Belgians and the Portuguese’ (Diawara in Spass: 129). 

In terms of exhibition, the possibility for the screening of African Francophone products in order to reach a mass audience both within and outside Africa is European controlled, for example in the case of Cameroon, the theatres are controlled by European distributors. There is additionally a difficulty associated with the screening of African cinematic products on African television, as it is still largely state-controlled and therefore subject to propaganda and censorship.

The cinema of Cameroon is an interesting case study within this concept of Francophone cinema, since the country has a varied colonial past, being under the rule of Portugal, Germany and most recently France. There is thus the possibility of ‘a mosaic of identities that can only be understood as approximations of otherness’ (Mhando). This difficulty of a plurality of identities in Cameroon is emphasized through its historical context of colonial rule and the dividing of the country into becoming part of the Nigerian entity and French Cameroon.

The issue of identity is articulated upon a local, national and global scale, which is emphasized in the film Clando (Teno, 1996), which ‘wrestles with the dilemma facing more and more educated Africans: whether to work to change the autocratic regimes at home or seek their fortunes abroad’ ( The film recognizes its colonial past, as the characters travel to and have a preoccupation with the space of Cologne in Germany. The Cameroonian diaspora in Cologne in the film are waiting for the Cameroonian change, but are powerless to enforce it. However, a young German activist is frustrated by their inactivity and complacence in waiting for change and informs them that ‘if you wait to change society, society will change you first’ ( This suggests that Africa should not wait for Europe to change their society, but should instead try to change their society themselves, without the help of Europe. It self-consciously acknowledges Africa’s dependency upon Europe for action.     

The colonialist cinema of Africa is pedagogical and ‘is in part artifactual of overt colonial disciplinary practices (practices by which the cinema “taught’ languages and values)’ (Mhando). This is particularly evident in the Chad film Daresalam/Let there be peace (Coelo, 2000), in which ‘the estrangement between government and the governed is symbolized by the fact that the government ministers must speak French, the language of the former colonial oppressors, because they do not know the indigenous language’ ( There is therefore a juxtaposition between the government and the population, since the people in power have been exposed to French values throughout their life, and hence impose these values upon a population who cannot comprehend them. Both opinions and ideologies are lost in translation between these two ‘communities’.

The concept of the Western education of African peoples is probably best summarized in the film Tableau Feraille (Absa, 1996). The film displays a pessimistic view of this modernity, which is perceived to be corroding African traditionalism. The narrative focuses upon an idealistic young politician’s rise and fall in Senegal, whose two wives represent the traditional Africa and the Westernized Africa. His first wife represents a grassroots Africa, who is loyal and uncorrupted by the West. His second wife, however, has had a colonial education in Africa and attempts to use her husband’s connections in order to enrich herself. This implies that the European mentality and colonial experience corrupts and suggests that the postcolonial elite still exploits the promise of African independence. The film suggests that there are hence two paths that Africa can take in order to redeem itself and secure its future; one path is optimistic towards self-reliance and social cohesion whereas the other path is pessimistic towards self-interest and social chaos.      




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