At the last Ismailia Film Festival, I spoke with the Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngangura who, born in the small town of Bukavu in 1950, studied filmmaking at the Institut des arts de diffusion in Belgium in the early 1970s and settled in Kinshasa as of 1975.
Ngangura became a pillar of the first generation of filmmakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). He made his name with La vie est belle (Life Is Beautiful, 1987), while Pièces d’Identités (Identity Pieces, 1998) won six international and regional awards. With 10 feature films to his name, he expressed his pleasure at receiving the Ismailia Festival’s honorary award. It was his second time in Egypt.
“I am proud to be here in this part of the continent,” he told me on the way from Ismailia to the Pyramids, “in Egypt, the country of Nasser who was the father of pan-Africanism. On this land lived the children of our national hero Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader. In terms of history Egypt is very important for the African continent. It is the country of the Pyramids and the Pharaohs. It is the very base of world civilisation. That what Egypt means to me.”
Ngangura believes that the way for African cinema to free itself of white domination is for African countries to work together to create their own film industry. Africans can thus present their own stories to each other, free of exoticisation and (white) market pressures. Egypt, he believes, would one of the main players.
“While here in Ismailia,” he said, “I had the opportunity to meet with filmmakers from different parts of the continent and we discussed exchanges, experiences and ideas. It is a rare opportunity and it happened in Egypt.” Ngangura’s vision was forged in a lifelong struggle — some dreams came true, others were given up — which showed him what is missing in the big picture, and how European distributors have kept African cinema in check.
“What they are looking for in African cinema is exotica. They are looking for exotic people, exotic life, not considering the African person as a human being. They only want to see something different or funny. They do not consider other cultures equal but as inferior. In this sense it is difficult for African films to reach the wider international audience. The history of the two continents has created complexity in the way they see each other. Cinema is life. The colonial mind still has problems looking at our life.”
In his late 60s, well-known among international festivals, producers and distributers, Ngangura cannot forget how often his projects were dropped because of lack of funding, and how many of his films were limited to the African audience because international distributers did not find them attractive enough for their networks. But he is proud of his films being admired and loved by his own people.
In 1970 Ngangura was the only student in Bukavu who managed to win a scholarship to study in Belgium. He was asked to choose a field of study not available in his own country and his answer was filmmaking.
“At that time there were no film schools in Congo, and there was not a single filmmaker. Only when I went to the Institute des arts de diffusion in Belgium did I meet two other Congolese film students, one in his fourth year and the other in his third.” The three of them were to be the first generation of filmmakers in the country.
On his return – to Kinshasa – Ngangura’s only option was to teach cinema at the National Institute of Arts, a school for drama and culture. “The other option was to work as a director in national television which had only a few entertainment or political propaganda programmes.”
Teaching filmmaking, on the other hand, “was an opportunity to practice what I had learned, in which process you learn more. It was also the moment I had a real contact with my country because when I left Congo I was very young. It was my opportunity to know its reality better.” From a small town in the east of Congo to Kinshasa via Brussels was a turning point.
“Life in Kinshasa was very dynamic and colourful compared to Bukavu or Brussels. My first short film Kin-Kiesse (1983) was a documentary about my love for this vivid, joyful city.”
It won the best documentary award at the Ouagadougou pan-African Film Festival. But his participation in this festival was another eye opener which influenced his cinematic choices, reflected in La vie est belle (Life is Beautiful 1987).
“Watching many of the African films screened in this festival it was clear to me that those films were not directed to an African audience. Africa in most of these films was only a subject and the audience were outside the filmmakers’ calculations.”
Ngangura knew the local audience’s preferences.
“People used to watch with a lot of admiration the kind of theatrical sketches screened on national television which tackled their everyday lives in their own language with a lot of fun. These were the comedy sketches that people would talk about the next day at the workplace and in the café. They were very influential and expressive.” And so they became a source of inspiration for Ngangura in his first feature film. His approach was to reach the audience through things with which they were familiar.
By the 1980s, Ngangura says, few film theaters had survived the 1970s and most people were attracted either to television or music, since Congo has the most popular musicians on the continent.
“So I decided to use some Congolese musicians as actors in my film to reach many countries in Africa in addition to the Congolese audience.”
The film was a comedy and the late Congolese singer Papa Wemba (1949-2016) became its lead actor.
“The film was welcomed as expected in Congo and in some other countries in Africa. It was the first of its kind at that time to feature a musician who was not an actor and to dare to be based on the comedy genre.” It also won two international film awards which went to the main actor, Papa Wemba: the Georges Delerue Prize of the Ghent International Film Festival, and the Bronze Mask of Taormina International Film Festival.
But to make his first feature, Ngangura had to leave his job as a film teacher and return to Belgium.
“It was difficult to keep working as a teacher because I was like a civil servant who can do nothing without permission, even to participate in a film festival required it. Making films you have to feel free to move at any time to any place.”
Although he continued making films from his own perspective, he learned that even when one is free to move his films do not have the same freedom of movement in the light of the producers’ and distributors’ expectations. The dilemma was that, while there were very limited production opportunities locally, international funders and distributers had their own visions, which did not necessarily chime with his.
“I wanted my films to succeed in Africa. But still in terms of money it is not enough to make it only on the continent because Africa is not a good market for films. For example the last film theater in Congo closed five years ago.”
The only windows available to African films are the film festivals and some of the educational networks such as universities. And when those films are not tailored to the white recipe those limited opportunities become even more limited.
Identity Pieces (1998) won eight international film awards including four from the 1999 Ouagadougou Panafrican Film and Television Festival. But its success was not an enough for European distributers to accept it on their list. “Distributers considered this film as another popular African film which they have no interest in distributing. It was always a difficult for me to accept how distributers have to impose their own criteria in this way.”
In 2016 the lead actor in his new film project, none other than his old friend Papa Wemba, passed away.
“It was very sad to lose a close friend who was the hero of one of my most successful adventures in the early years of my career.”
Although his project is indefinitely postponed especially after the deterioration of his own health, he still believes that filmmakers in Africa have a duty to contend with.
“As a consequences of colonization and slavery I think that Africa lost its humanity. It is a big duty for me as an African filmmaker to work on recovering that humanity.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Cinema Africa
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