Liberte, Egalite, Francophone: French films grace big screens

If your knowledge of films from the Francophone world extends no farther than celebrated French actor Gerard Depardieu, then you ought to take a closer look. Williams offered just such an opportunity last week, hosting “Liberte, Egalite, Francophonie: a Festival of Recent Francophone Films.” French as “the unifying tongue” was the theme of the opening lecture and the films that followed it.

The use of the French language currently extends far beyond the confines of France and French culture. Audience members were taken during the films on a journey not only from Paris to Belgium, but also from the West to the East of Africa, once colonized by France.

The festival opened with a lecture entitled “Africa on Screen: Genesis, Evolution and Present State,” given by Samba Gadjigo, professor of Francophone literature and cinema at Mount Holyoke College. The lecture on Feb. 27 was attended by about 35 people. Gadjigo, himself of Senegalese nationality, spoke on the history of West African cinema with a focus particularly on the role of Senegalese pioneer director Ousmane Sembène.

The history presented touched upon many aspects of the complex and changing relationship between Europe and West Africa during the transitional period from colonization to independence throughout the twentieth century. Gadjigo noted that at the time of introduction of the cinema to the big cities of West Africa in the1930s, it was a medium reserved both economically and intellectually for the elite audience of European colonialists and African “ÃevoluÃes” (translated as “evolved Africans,” a European concept to describe Africans who chose to embrace the European cultural traditions). These African audiences offered an expanded market for European production, but there was at first little potential for experimentation with any concept of African film. If one wished to learn the art of cinema, it was necessary to travel to Europe for the tools and techniques.

The first film made entirely on West African soil was Sembane’s “Borom Sarret,” filmed in 1963, just three years after Senegal gained its independence from France. Sembane, who began as a mechanic and bricklayer and then served in the French Free Army before taking up the cinema, has produced numerous films and novels since 1963. His most recent work is a 2000 film, “Faat-Kine,” which was screened in Bronfman auditorium on Feb. 28, the night following Gadjigo’s opening lecture.

The film offers a glimpse into modern post-colonial life in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, through the eyes of a 40 year old single mother, Kine, who is fighting her way to success after being abandoned by each of the fathers of her two children and expelled from the home of her own. Kine’s struggle is also Senegal’s struggle. Her success comes in the form of the education of her children, who pass their entrance exams and have a promising future before them at the university. The film, like much of Sembène’s work, is in both French and Wolof, Senegal’s vernacular majority language. It offers a view of Senegalese life and aspiration that is rich in local culture.

The other films shown during the five-day festival were Claire Danis’ “Beau Travail,” set in the East African country of Djibouti; “100% Arabica,” which takes place in the Arab and African neighborhoods of urban Paris; the Belgian film “Rosetta” by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; and a West African animated folk tale, “Kirikou et la Sorciere.”