WHAT IS CINEMA?

Enrique Castro Ríos
  • Peasant, hunter, musketeer, long shot. Dogon Country, Mali, 1990. © Enrique Castro Ríos
  • Peasant, hunter, musketeer, medium full shot. Dogon Country, Mali, 1990. © Enrique Castro Ríos
  • Peasant, hunter, musketeer, close up. Dogon Country, Mali, 1990. © Enrique Castro Ríos
  • Extreme long shot from within a cavern, Dogon Country, Mali, 1990. © Enrique Castro Ríos
  • Long shot of tree, Dogon Country, Mali, 1990. © Enrique Castro Ríos

The question, which troubles film thinkers and practitioners alike, titled the writings of fundamental film theorist André Bazin and currently pits monsters like Scorsese and Loach against Marvel’s leotard-clad superheroes, tolls within my head like the freshly cast bell in Andrei Rubliev[1]...

Aeons ago, living another life, I saw the short film Un Certain Matin[2] (A Certain Morning, Burkina Faso 1991) by Fanta Régina Nacro, which takes place in the Mossi Plateau of Burkina Faso in West Africa, south of the beautiful Mali of my memories; Mali, where I had the honour to live for six brief weeks one year after the brief but brutal US military Invasion of my Panama, when the climate crisis seemed distant and Al Qaeda in the Sahel unthinkable. In Fanta’s short film a peasant named Tiga —like so many other people I met in Bamako and Dogon country, who happened to be artists as well as shepherds or peasants— goes to work one morning, ancient and perfectly preserved musket and gunpowder horn on his shoulder. Following endless salutations and handshakes with his friends and after bumping into one or two bad omens, Tiga arrives at his workshop, the shadow of a tree; there he lays his musket and resumes the creation of a set of wooden chairs with tools he has surely manufactured himself. Time moves lazily; Tiga’s hands dexterously weave the fibres that hold the wood together; the chairs take shape.

Suddenly, screams! Through a nearby field a woman runs terrified, chased by a man who menacingly wields a machete. Tiga jumps and grabs his musket, but before he manages to shoot, woman and stranger come to a halt, calmly turn around and walk back, heads bent, whence they came. Slowly, our perplexed hero goes back to work; he becomes even more perplexed when the frenetic chase and calm return are repeated without giving him time to react. Finally, the sequence takes place all over again, and when the violent stranger is about to chop the terrified woman in two, BOOM!, Tiga stops him with the thunderous discharge of his musket. “CUT!” a voice in French shouts next to a large film camera hidden at the end of the field and a swarm of French and Burkinabe technicians run towards the wounded stranger. Our hero realizes that from his reality —in which a 300-year old musket is still a weapon of daily use— he has shot an actor in order to save a fictional life in danger. “TIGA, RUN!” You can imagine audiences screaming in dialogue with the fragile film image reflected on screens from Ouagadougou to Havana.

That night, once again within the matryoshka[3] that is the cinema, after the two-time actor[4] has survived the extraction of a non-existent bullet and the fictional police have understood that there was no ill intention in the actions of the also fictitious Tiga, the young son of our hero, I seem to remember, finds him hiding in the hollow trunk of a baobab like a human matryoshka. Letting him know that he is no longer in danger, and unwittingly honouring André Bazin, the boy asks him, “Papa, qu’est-ce que le cinéma?”

What is cinema? My memory is treacherous, and obviously the above question should have been asked in the Mòoré language of the Mossi and not in one of the tongues of Empire, according to iconic Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha.[5] But our enquiry persists. What is cinema? And in chorus we respond, cinema is life! Cinema, from the Ancient Greek roots kinein, to move, movement, kinema, is the ability to move an image to move the soul, to infiltrate two of your senses to submerge you into the thousand perceptions and ten thousand contradictions of a character. Cinema is sculpting time, in the words of filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, to inhabit for a moment the life of our confused musketeer Tiga, as well as that of his little boy who rescues him, inquisitive and worried. Cinema is an invitation to live the lives of others, ideally to learn, reflect, question, grow... But let’s not fool ourselves: the famous American director DW Griffith,[6] apologist for the Confederacy and its slavery, and the brilliant Nazi director and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl,[7] among many other filmmakers deeply committed to “the [really] dark side of The Force”, to cite a hyper-lite cinematic approach to these issues, also taught us that cinema can nurture our worst instincts, justifying brutal injustices and promoting genocides. “Menos pior”, as my peasant ancestors would have pronounced less badly, but still cruising the ten-lane highway to the manicómio de os cegos malvados, (Saramago’s “madhouse of the evil blind”), ‘evil cinema’, in my coinage, can foster negative representations whilst pretending not to; in the case of what Fanta Régina Nacro criticizes in her film A Certain Morning, the post-colonial visions of a noir africain who terrorizes a woman with a machete for no other reason than for being sub-Saharan Africans. It is therefore up to us to learn to watch cinema and learn from cinema, as it is also up to us to observe life in order to better comprehend it.

Enrique Castro Ríos
[email protected]

I appreciate the support of Beti Ellerson, director of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema, http://africanwomenincinema.blogspot.com; and of Katherine Zien, Associate Professor, Department of English, McGill University, https://www.mcgill.ca/english/staff/katherine-zien