Africa Revisited

Here are a few follow-ups on the subject of African science fiction.

First up, with thanks to DaveH for the heads-up, the BBC World Service has a programme narrated by Lauren Beukes which includes interviews with Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Wanuri Kahiu (Pumzi), Jonathan Dotse, and Nnedi Okorafor. It is well worth a listen (and includes Lauren pronouncing her last name). You can find it on the iPlayer.

In addition I attended an event in Bristol at the weekend at which Mark Bould and Roger Luckhurst presented a couple of French films on colonialism as works that could be interpreted as science fiction. This was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a bit of an academic exercise, but it was interesting all the same.

Les Statues Meurent Aussi (literally Statues Also Die, but I’d translate it as Even Statues Can Die) is a 1953 film by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais about the effect of colonialism on African culture. The central argument of the film is that by removing African cultural artifacts from their cultural context and placing them in museums we are not preserving culture, we are killing it. That’s an important message, and one I need to take to heart as I’ll be helping stage a museum exhibition (albeit nothing to do with Africa) in the next few months. However, it isn’t in itself science-fictional.

What got the film into the event is the fact that at one point the narrator says, “We are the Martians of Africa”. He then goes on to talk about diseases, which makes it fairly clear that Marker and Resnais had Wells in mind when making the film. Wells, of course, wrote The War of the Worlds in part in reaction to the genocide of the native Tasmanian people by European (mostly British) settlers.

Given when it was made, it is unsurprising that, despite their good intentions, Marker and Resnais come over incredibly patronizing at times, but the film is visually stunning. You can see the whole thing on Vimeo, though sadly only in French. There’s a subtitled version on YouTube, but because of length restrictions it is split into three parts.

The other film was La Noire de… by Ousmane Sembène, a Senegalese filmmaker who lived part of his life in France. The SFnal connection here is even less obvious, though the extreme lack of communication between the heroine and her employers has a lot to tell us about alienation. Diouana, a young woman from Senegal, takes a job as a maid with a French couple living in Dakar. When her employers return to France they invite her to come with them, with disastrous consequences.

I’m going to display my prejudices here. There are good reasons for studying films. There’s much more room to read meanings into images than with text. Also you get far more respect in the UK if your study of science fiction is confined to film. But equally it can be hard to get over a subtle argument in a film and this one left me largely with questions that got in the way of whatever story it was trying to tell.

Of course it doesn’t help that we are also working with a translation. Even the title is difficult. The subtitled version is called Black Girl, but that’s not what the French title means. Wikipedia translates the French title as “The black girl belonging to…” but (and hopefully Kari will correct me if I am wrong) I much prefer “The black girl from…”. That’s a much more accurate summation of how Diouana falls between two cultures.

Further events related to the African Science Fiction exhibition are happening this week. On Thursday evening there’s a talk about the relationship between the music of the Mbenga-Mbuti people (commonly known as “pygmies”) and the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Entrance is free, but you do need to book a place so see here for details. And on Saturday there are some free talks examining possible African futures: details here.

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4 Responses to Africa Revisited

  1. Milena says:

    I would suggest ‘The Black Girl of…’ as a way to keep the ambiguity of meaning present in the French title.
    And, also, thanks for the reports. This is really interesting stuff.

    • Cheryl says:

      While that’s technically correct, the form “X of Y” to denote origin is largely archaic these days, as in Robin of Sherwood. The song is not called “The Girl of Ipanema”. I think the ambiguity would be lost on many English readers.

  2. Say, has anyone mentioned any science fiction conventions going on in Africa? The only general sf con I know of on the entire continent is the annual SFSA con, which seems to serve a fairly limited community.

    • Cheryl says:

      I don’t know of any others. Ahmed Khaled mentioned conventions in Syria, but I guess that they might be difficult these days. Grant Kruger may still be in touch with the SFSA people.

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