Let Us Un-Name Ourselves

  1. Memories of a Film Enthusiast 

Visual arts came to me later in life. Only when I had had the privilege of stepping out of the small precinct, on the Eastern flank of Nairobi City, where I spent all my formative years, did I enter into a complicated relationship with static images. My first love, as far as I can recall, was and still is cinema. I remember the many illicit hours I spent huddled in a stuffy video hall, together with at least fifty others, mostly adults, eyes fixed on the small screen watching martial arts films. My favorite, as well as for many other boys of my age, were the Shaolin films. But it is the aftertaste of watching such films that has clung to my memory. Within the two hours or so that I sat on wooden benches, letting the light from the Cathode Ray Tube wash my face, I transformed into a disciplined shaolin monk. I momentarily forgot that my parents were worried about my whereabouts, and, finding my way back home along a narrow street lined by fish-mongers, every couple of steps, I posed into a newly fangled Kung Fu fighting stunt.

In those days, amidst a series of military dictatorship, Nigerian film producers established the Nollywood franchise, and it is the encounter with these films that incised a scar in my soul.  While the martial-arts films was an act of deterritorialization, severing Buddhist traditions and transmitting them to the East of Africa, the Nollywood film activated a dream that was closer to our collective consciousness. These films represented our everyday life, our material surrounding, and the stories that were close to us. It was not rare to be seated in front of the screen with tear laden eyes, and when I left the video halls, burdened by sorrow, to bitterly weep. With the Hong Kong martial art films, we had gone half way around the world, but these Nollywood films reflected our collective reality, our perennial loss and defeat as Africans. 

Although produced under a low budget, Nollywood films had the desire to generate stories to which many Africans around the continent, scattered in their various forms of being, could relate. Only Dziga Vertov, the pioneering Russian filmmaker, offers a peculiar exposition of this intersubjective cinematic influence. While in charge of a cinema-train car, he had shown some films in a remote region in Russia, among farmers. Some of the films included new inventions that the farmers were yet to encounter, and there had followed a general uproar. Towards the conclusion of the screenings, Vertov and his colleagues posed a question to the audience on whether they prefer fiction (denoted by a famous Russian drama, petrushka) or life. He writes:

“Is it to be Petrushka of life?” we asked the viewers.

“Petrushka, answered the hopelessly infected. “We already know life—we don’t need life. Keep life, boring life, from us.”

“Life,” answered those viewers who were not hopelessly infected, or free of infection. “We don’t know life. We have not seen life. We know our country village and the ten versts around it. Show us life.”

The more I reflect on my encounter with Nollywood films, the more I arrive at the conclusion that they reflected the existential quality that our souls desired, and these films that resembled our lives, enhanced the yearning to understand our existence, to situate ourselves within the waves of time.

  1. Memories of an Anthropologist

Perhaps it is unbefitting and unsettling to assume the role of an anthropologist of one’s own culture. To be an anthropologist, there must be a degree of detachment from the society that the one has resolved to emulate, study, and record. The anthropologist foresees an end and does not intervene. They are there to claim their primary role of witnessing. The more one comes to this position, then the clarity of film as a recording of a history of people, as an archive of memories, gains an unprecedented primacy. But films also assume roles that are outside of the intellectual canon; they enact those conditions, either factually or through the vehicle of imagination, that led to an extinct form of being. 

With this, we enter into another sphere of filmmaking, which I recently encountered through the work of the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. Sembene, a former soldier who fought for France in the Second World War, produced some of the most incisive postcolonial films, but these films were, during their time, less appreciated. In the ecosystem of cinema from Africa, there is, by and large, a discontinuity. Production of films is a disjointed exercise, fragmented and external. The externality of such endeavors references the foreign contribution in the act of filmmaking, as, for instance, an intervention by a Europe or America based organization. With Sembene we discern a disruption of this pattern. Consider the 1997 film “Ceddo.” When Sembene released “Ceddo,” it was banned in Senegal. The subject upon which it focused and dwelled was too sensitive that the Senegalese government, in a predominantly Islamic state, was unable, for the sake of national peace, to condone Sembene’s methods. 

But what strikes is the anthropological method adopted in the cinematic medium. The time period that work covers is, indeed, not well documented. It might have been in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, for there is the permanent appearance of a slave trader. “Ceddo” is a parallel narrative on the conditions surrounding slave trade within the African continent. And the slave trader assumed a cataclysmic role. Almost most of the conflicts that enrage in this specific film are sparked by the desire for the material provided by the slave trader. As viewers, we cannot question the accuracy of representation in this film, yet we are continually aware that the film is enacting something that, because of colonialism and imperialism, has been displaced. Perhaps, this film can suitably belong to the category of reverse-anthropology. It is an anthropological excursion that moves against time. While based within a different time dimension, it almost reflects the simultaneity of past, present, and future. The anthropologist exists through the capacity to see and hear. The camera as a non-being detached from reality, and one that retains accurate memory, is the locus for representation of forms that have, with time, evolved.

Let us now, with redoubled effort, return to the concept of existential quality, which this essay has only raised in passing. Cinema conveys this existential quality for it enriches a collective experience. The concept of existential quality, is, at best, a form of configuration—extending those sensational experiences that exist out of the time continuum. Watching Ousmane Sembene’s film has the capacity to nourish the process of reorientation of one’s reality, and to situate it within other realities. It is an admittance of alternate realities that impinge on one’s reality, but it is also a form of reclamation of the reality that has, owing to historical injustices and erasures and pain, been obliterated. Because of the conscious effort to reenact the past, and at the same time, to employ modern tools, there is an overt intentionality in the film. In other words, those who are viewing the film, today, might be aware of the outcomes, but are nonetheless compelled to suspend judgement. 

It is in this awareness of the results, yet the curiosity to reflect on the specific conditions that led to these endings that fortuitously endows the subjective experience of encountering what can only be reverse-anthropology. Through reverse-anthropology, the viewer reconciles to ideas that were omitted, and, therefore, enhancing the existential quality. Here, existential quality is a reciprocation of the equally abrasive concept of existential crisis. During existential crises, the individual is doubtful and perceives a lack of flavor in life. In contrast, existential quality is a reconciliation to all the joys and sorrows, to all doubts and certainty. It is a moment of enlightenment that earns the individual an equanimity and a resolve to arise beyond simple acceptance. Acceptance can project a resignation to the overarching condition. It is an abdication of one’s duty. But existential quality, a concept that gains clarity once one compares Sembene’s reenactment in “Ceddo” with, simultaneously, a freshened approach to history.

It will be impossible to examine the reverse anthropology in Ousmane Sembene’s methods without, in one way or another, divulging some of the turning points in the film.  But, first, the film dismantles the anthropological tropes from without. In other words, this film eliminates all those influences that entered the society that the filmmaker had committed to reenact. At the core of the film, is the conflict between Christianity and Islam, which are both contesting for the souls of the “pagans.” Although they both gain traction, converting a soul here and there, the filmmaker, through appearance of violence, eliminates the external agents. These are the agents from literate cultures, through whose anthropological work most Africans have come to learn some of the conditions in the precolonial times, and to even gain understanding of their history. Once literate systems replaced the oral system, owing to enforcement of Islamic and Christian laws, aspects of African traditions vanished. What Sembene achieves, through this film, is to reinstall this oral tradition, to assume the role of a reverse anthropologist, and in that nourish existential quality.

  1. Memories of a Physician 

When compared to recent productions, Sembene’s “Ceddo” enters a region that the popular 

cinema is yet to explore. It is, at the same instant, possible to see the reason this film, when it was released in the late seventies, ignited controversy. There are many other aspects that might demand attention, but those do not fit within the scope of this essay, rather what is worth mentioning relates to one of the most heinous crime of all times: mass slavery. Sembene’s reenactment is brutally honest and incisive. He does not spare Africans, those who remained in the continent, for their role in the slave trade. The most subtle allusion in the film was when a young woman, considered as a servant, is exchanged for a pot of wine. Another instant is when clansmen resolve to trade some of their children for firearms, and to use these firearms to resist incursion by militant Islam and forceful conversion. One might ask, the contribution of such elements towards existential quality. But it is also clear that, while anthropology is a prognosis, reverse anthropology is a diagnosis—identifies an illness in retrospect. It is in this retrospection that it is possible to overcome a crisis, and, hence, attain an existential quality. Reverse anthropology is a recovery from dementia. 

Humans have invariably approached history through the eyes of those who lived in the past, but never thought of it as fate. And the reverse anthropology, through Ousmane Sembene’s film, captures this inward looking that is inseparable from fate. For one to examine their existence within time, in spite of all their concerted effort to influence outcomes, she must focus on those moments that were beyond control, and this is only possible when viewing the past from the present. These incipient ideas plunged on me once I encountered films that represent our current condition, that record struggles that my society endures, and then to compare them to those films that critically reflect on the lost past. And it is only time that has lapsed but the sensation of loss and grief remains. There is always something missing in the African consciousness. It has been passed down from one generation to another. There is always a relative who vanished, never to be seen again, and who probably found themselves as slaves in the Americas or Middle-East. In some of the final scenes in Ceddo, after the Islamic conquest, all the villagers are renamed. Yet in each act of naming and renaming, there is an erasure, and still a reminder that, no sooner does one un-name oneself, does one achieve an existential quality. 

Enos Nyamor

Enos Nyamor is an art-writer, cultural journalist, and cultural critic. Born and raised in Nairobi, Enos is currently an MFA Art-writing candidate at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Some of his past writings and projects focused on the intersection between physical movement and digital migration, as well as site-specific elements in live art. He is presently working on a collection of essays on intersubjectivity in computer-generated images and dimensions of new media experiences.