A Step Forward: New African Film in Paris

Nov 21st, 2011

Going to the cinema is one of many everyday pleasures to be had in Paris: the typical variety of films on offer, particularly in the Latin Quarter, seems like a 365-day film festival. On any given day, you could see the latest Hollywood release, new independent films from around the world, or a range of cinema classics. To see Buñuel, Bergman or Kurosawa on the big screen, there’s no need to go to the cinémathèque or wait for a new restored release: cinemas like the Accatone, the Grand Action and the Reflet Médicis in the 5th arrondissement show films like this every day, and the they don’t cancel a screening if too few people turn up.


Any tourist can take advantage of the cinematic opportunities in Paris: if you don’t speak a word of French, you can go and see an English film (if it’s a new Hollywood film or a children’s film, look out for the letters ‘VO’ to make sure you see the ‘original version’, not one dubbed in French). If you understand some French, or are fluent in another language, you can watch a foreign film and read the French subtitles. If you’re fluent, or nearly and want a challenge, you can see a French movie: even if you don’t understand every word, Paris’s historic cinemas are so charming that you’ll still have a wonderful experience.


On a trip to Paris last week, I happened to catch actor-director Sylvestre Amoussou’s second feature, Un Pas en avant: Les Dessous de la corruption (2011). It was almost five years ago that I saw his directorial début, Africa Paradis (2007), a fiction film based on a highly original concept. Set in a future where Europe has become uninhabitable, the film imagines what could happen if there were a wave of European immigrants to Africa. Africa Paradis made its social commentary through a reversal of fortunes, showing white people treated as second-class citizens, taking on just the sort of menial jobs that are traditionally assigned to immigrants. The film was enjoyable as a comedy, making the audience laugh by turning a familiar situation on its head. At the same time, Africa Paradis was thought-provoking in the radical way in which it asks you, as a spectator, to put yourself in another person’s place (be that the role of the oppressor or the oppressed). The drawback of Africa Paradis is that it felt a little amateurish, so that it was difficult, at times, to become fully involved in the story.


In Un Pas en avant, Amoussou has created a film with much more professional production values. Like Africa Paradis, over-acting is the rule, but this adds to the film’s comic value, as though the actors and audience share the enjoyment of exaggeration, as in a soap opera. In terms of the film’s technical quality, compelling storyline and often artistic shot composition, Un Pas en avant is a much stronger film than Africa Paradis.


Amoussou himself takes the starring role in Un Pas en avant, playing both greengrocer Koffi Godomey and his twin brother Boubacar, a delivery driver. When Boubacar disappears, and the police investigation seems to be going nowhere, Koffi decides to start his own search for his brother. In the process, he discovers terrible corruption taking place in Benin, at the highest levels of the country’s government and police service, its NGOs and the French embassy. While this storyline has the potential to be confusing, the exposition is clear: the characters are well-differentiated, and the narrative is paced just right, allowing the audience to follow the unfolding intrigue easily.


As in his first film, Amoussou excels in taking serious subject matter and treating it with a skilfully balanced blend of sobriety and tragedy on the one hand, and humour and optimism on the other. Amoussou’s portrayal of the twin brothers is entertaining, the chief difference between them being that one has no hair while the other has quite a lot. There is also a solid dose of comedy in Koffi’s relationship with his wife, who initially makes fun of his efforts to play the detective. The African setting is also particularly enjoyable, in terms of verbal expression and visual aesthetic: the local linguistic expressions and the noises used to express disapproval; the beautiful traditional costumes that the characters wear; the simple but welcoming interiors, and the golden light quality in the exterior shots.


A friend who attended the screening had personal experience of the region, and pointed out that there was a clear effort to Africanise and idealise in this film. In reality, she said, it is common to combine an African wrap with a second-hand imported t-shirt. It is also unrealistic that not a single person showed signs of any past or present illness. That said, this film was intended for a mass audience, and so can be seen as romanticising everyday reality in the way of Hollywood cinema: we rarely complain of American cinema’s beautiful people or the mismatches between the characters’ modest jobs and their spacious apartments or stylish clothing.


Un Pas en avant arguably has more than enough reality in its storyline, which focuses on the way in which some of the most privileged individuals in Benin shamelessly take a cut of donations intended for the poorest. They siphon off a percentage of every food and medication donation that comes into the country. Even more troubling, the film shows how they are able to get away with it: while the majority is very much opposed to corruption, most people never know what is going on. When the average honest person does find out about corruption, those in power try to buy their complicity, and when that fails, readily resort to threats or even murder. Unlike in a Hollywood film, the audience can never be 100% sure that the good guys are going to make it: as the film builds towards its climax, it seems as though no one is safe.


A potential problem with Un Pas en avant is in the degree to which it confirms stereotypes about corrupt African leaders and lawlessness in the region. It is depressing to consider how much this fiction film may reflect reality, and it could discourage people from donating to Africa, let alone visiting. At the same time, it contains a message of hope, in that it shows that  it is possible to speak out and take action against corruption, though very risky. The film implicitly asks every audience member to consider whether they would be brave enough to report corruption in these circumstances. One unexpected element of the film is its handful of openly didactic moments, reminiscent of Eisenstein, where customers at Koffi’s fruit and vegetable stall state their beliefs about the importance of voting, or their refusal to tolerate corruption. This is just one of a combination of characteristics which makes Amoussou’s work so distinctive.

Un Pas en avant: Les Dessous de la corruption is currently screening several times daily at the Espace Saint-Michel, 7 place St-Michel, Paris.

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