Nurturing Reciprocity in African Film

Posted on July 22, 2022 by Patrice Robinson

Patrice Robinson, Cinema Assistant at the Barbican, writes about first watching Maangamizi: The Ancient One, a 2001 Tanzanian film that will screen on the 31st July at the Barbican, which caused her to reflect on her own identity as a member of the African diaspora and the obstacles to visibility and availability that African films continue to face.

Last December, I attended the ICO Archive Screening Days, which hosted a rich programme of archival work from across the globe.

After an eventful morning, I decided to sit in on the screening of Maangamizi: The Ancient One.

The film stood out to me initially because it explored the individual and collective experiences of its leading African women.

I naïvely thought that I would watch a unique and enjoyable title that could be a refreshing and welcome suggestion for programming. Once the lights lowered and the film began, I was unknowingly entering into an experience which challenged me to reflect more on my understanding of my own identity and what it means to be a child of the African diaspora.

The film follows a growing mutual understanding between Samehe, a patient in a mental health hospital in Tanzania and Asira, a Black American doctor who has taken up a residency there. I was struck by the reciprocity between these two characters.

The approach taken to the interaction between Samehe and Asira is not derived from a colonial mindset. This is not a story of a diasporan returning to Africa to assert dominance or to reject traditional practices (in a way that Song of Freedom (1936) leans into this narrative); nor is it a cliché story of a descendent who is spiritually lost and is seeking validation from a culture relatively unknown to them. What it is, is a portrayal of two women who have a solid foundation in their idea of what it is to be Black or to be African.

A woman in close up looks at the camera looking serenely happy. She has a red headress wrappped around her forehead with a metal amulet hanging between her eybrows. The background is probably outdoors but is out of focus.
Barbara O as Dr. Asira in Maangamizi: The Ancient One

Although having different understandings of what it is to heal/ process trauma, both are able and willing to ‘gift’ each other by being open to learning and experiencing the practices of the other in a non-exploitative way. To me, this film is a beautiful demonstration of acceptance, balance and of some semblance of self-actualisation.

As a Black British person of African descent, seeing this process on screen sat with me in a way that I do not think another film has done before. The harmonious use of both African spirituality and western alternative therapy felt natural and non-competitive.

I was forced to question the impact of unreleased trauma on the mind, body and spirit and how that presents in those with competing identities. According to UK government statistics, in 2021, Black people were almost five times as likely as white people to be detained under the Mental Health Act – 344 detentions per 100,000 people, compared with 75 per 100,000 people. I wonder whether the amalgamation of African spirituality and western alternative therapy should be explored further in the management of mental health in the African diaspora. Perhaps this would help to destigmatise mental illness in Black communities.
I have since thought about how I maintain my own well-being and how I could lean into my past to feel satisfied in the present.

So, how can we in the industry mimic this shared sense of ‘gifting’ when exhibiting African films?

To explore this, the ‘restitution of African cinema’ should be discussed. Many retrospective African titles are recognised as not being an accurate representation of the cultural and political views of their time as the result of the industry being under foreign western rule. This was written into law in French colonies, for example, with legislation such as the Laval Decree (1934) banning Africans from making their own films.

Films that were made had a strong external influence and were heavily gate-kept. Despite this, and the potential promise of change, brought by the post-colonial 60s, many titles still remain unseen, locked away, often in imperial institutions and archival vaults, highlighting the enduring legacy of colonialism.

Nowadays, on the occasion that an opportunity to screen these films is made available, film hire is often levied at high prices which make it virtually impossible for many exhibitors to commit to doing so, despite their best intentions.

This serves as a reminder that within the Western film mainstream, one’s own Black talent is not one’s own. This dominant sense of Western entitlement is present because the Black/ African self is seen as a commodity.

African woman in close-up portrait stares intensely out beyond the left of the image.
Amandina Lihamba as Samehe in Maangamizi: The Ancient One

Controlling access is an act aimed at silencing Black communities; it is a way of reinforcing and maintaining oppressive dominance. Conversely, the act of screening the hidden art of Black/ African filmmakers is a significant form of activism that amplifies the muted voices from the past and present. It is also a way to provide continental Africans and African diasporans a tangible space to communicate and understand one another, celebrate each other’s heritage, and heal.

Ajabu Ajabu, the audio-visual house, presenting Maangamizi: The Ancient One, explain that the economic value of a film is preserved by restricting its exhibition. “From the elusive festival circuit to enforced geo-blocking of streamers, the forged exclusivity of a film somehow deems it to be of higher regard. But when you make something (cultural documents) rare, what it gains in economic value, it loses in cultural value”.

Fortunately, Ajabu Ajabu has been able to contribute to the preservation of the cultural value of Maangamizi – which due to economic demands of distribution, initially lost its contact with local audiences.

What differentiates Maangamizi – is that the rights of the film were retained by its makers. As a result, the company can re-distribute the film and prioritise access as the authors intended by “making it available, through wide local distribution, making it accessible, through open and inclusive (re)interpretation and by making it communal, through intentional and engaging curation”.

Nurturing reciprocity in film can be achieved but one cannot dictate one’s own path whilst being restricted by the ideals and practices of another. The cherry-picking of ‘acceptable’ vs ‘non-acceptable’ Black cinema needs to end if we want to cultivate an industry with varied stories that stem directly from the communities they mean to represent.

For films to maximise reach; distributors, festivals, sales agents, exhibitors, marketers, press and audiences will also have to adjust to not prioritising stories from the western perspective. French film Happening opened in over three times as many venues in the UK with lifetime income approximately 7.8 times that of Chadian film, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds, when both received acclaim on the festival circuit and touch on the important and ever-relevant topic of abortion. With no information on marketing spend, I cannot comment further, but I question: Why would less venues book? Why is there decreased audience connection?

By returning ownership of African films to their creators, allowing African filmmakers to produce, preserve and distribute films as they see fit, equity can be established. Only then will the opportunity to create a reciprocal dynamic similar to that of our leading ladies Samehe and Asira, come to fruition.

Maangamizi: The Ancient One + ScreenTalk is screening at the Barbican on 31st July 2022 at 2.30pm.

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