“When I began to make my own films, I could not help but make a cinema that was political in its form and content, … I wanted to use cinema, in the words of Ousmane Sembene, as a tool for liberation. And the first step of this liberation was to deconstruct … the mechanisms of oppression that continued to maintain the African continent in a state of chaos and poverty despite its abundance of intellectual and natural resources.”
During his thirty-five-year career, the ground-breaking Cameroonian director Jean-Marie Teno has resiliently filmed, analysed and critiqued coloniality, past and present, in Cameroon and more broadly in Africa. His evolving, cutting-edge formal and thematic explorations have consistently found themselves at the vanguard of, and in remarkable resonance with, some of the period’s most fascinating and challenging social, political, intellectual and artistic debates. Here, authors Melissa Thackway and Jean-Marie Teno discuss the genesis of their book, Reel Resistance. The Cinema of Jean-Marie Teno.
Back in the mid-1990s, when I was working on my PhD on African cinema, the films of Cameroonian director Jean-Marie Teno rapidly stood out for me as some of the most formally and thematically challenging and exciting works of the time. Yet, doubtlessly due to their uncompromising anti-colonial charge, their overt political commitment, their formal freedom and their then unusual embracing of a subjective, questioning first-person documentary voice, Teno’s films were often tiptoed around with caution, when not actually eliciting a defensive response. Not conforming to what commonly appeared to be the respectability and acceptability of the canon, eschewing predominantly Western expectations about African film and documentary, Teno’s work posed questions that left many destabilized. It were as if the gatekeepers of the African film world did not know quite what to do with this radically unorthodox work, or this outspoken filmmaker, whom many found a tricky character to boot. Shortly after Gayatri C. Spivak famously asked, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Teno’s films offered not only what his voice-over in Afrique, je te plumerai described as readings of post/neo/colonial African societies from his “native point of view “, but also dared to provoke and make his audiences uncomfortable.
It was not without trepidation, then, that I went to interview Teno for the first time in Paris in 1997, an interview that would later appear in my book Africa Shoots Back. Unbeknown to either of us at the time, this would turn out to be the first of many discussions, exchanges and, later, filmic collaborations. Over the years, I indeed continued to develop my research on, and teaching of Teno’s work. At the same time, as Teno discussed his work with audiences, students and academics around the world, he increasingly felt the need to write about his filmic choices, processes, and about the political, social, and even personal context of his work.
After much thought and discussion, we decided to bring together our respective viewpoints concerning Teno’s by now considerable oeuvre in the form of a book. While we had no model for doing this, we felt that ours needed to be a collaborative work that is, yet moves beyond, the classical academic monograph to become a critical analytical dialogue. Weaving together both filmic analysis and our extended interview in which Teno unveils his background, motivations, aims, approaches, certainties and doubts for the first time, these two complementary parts reverberate to form a textual dialogue of their own. Conscious, too, of the asymmetry of our respective positionalities – white woman scholar from the global North/black male artist from global South – and convinced of the importance of testimony and voice, we hereby seek to address/redress this imbalance, giving the artist behind the works the space to evoke his filmmaking processes as the speaking subject that he is in his films.
Presenting and contextualizing Teno’s cinema, addressing the notion of political commitment in art and of cinema as a form of resistance, our book takes the reader on a journey through Teno’s multifaceted filmic reflections. It situates Teno’s filmmaking both in relation to the theoretical and aesthetic debates to have animated West and Central African filmmakers since the 1960s, and in relation to documentary filmmaking practices on the continent and beyond. In so doing, we offer an analysis of the predominant stylistic and thematic traits of Teno’s work, examining the individual films and the collective oeuvre, and highlighting the evolutions of his film language and concerns.
This guest post was written by Melissa Thackway, a lecturer, independent researcher and translator and Jean-Marie Teno, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker from Cameroon, whose award-winning works have screened in major festivals and are studied in universities around the world.