Essay Film Filmmakers

Jean-Marie Téno

chefChef!, 1999. The film opens to images of people in traditional ceremonial robes and western-styled business suits heading towards a cultural exhibition of ancient tribal rhythms and dances, the road towards the event anachronistically demarcated by a large Fanta corporate sponsorship banner that frames the main entrance. The auspicious occasion is the unveiling of a monument in commemoration of Kamga Joseph II, the western-friendly ancestral chief of the village of Bandjoun (and ancestor of filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno), who ruled one of the largest villages in western Cameroon at the turn of the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, the man “who tried to straddle the two worlds” initiated the path towards the modernization of the village by imposing European culture even as he sought to retain ancestral traditions. Now, decades later, it is in this curious spectacle of cultural celebration turned pro-government rally – where government officials mingled freely with other village leaders to illustrate the intrinsically incestuous, cultural fraternity of “chefs” (chiefs) – coupled with the filmmaker’s coincidental purchase of a souvenir calendar written in the regional language of Ghomala that outlines the unwritten, traditional “Rules of the Husband in his Home” (that anoints every man as the indisputable chief of the household) that Téno seeks to examine the conflicted legacy of this double-edged policy in modern-day Cameroon where half of the population are “chiefs” according to ancestral tradition, leading to an inhumane cycle of the nation’s collective imprisonment by chiefs who defer only to higher chiefs, unaccountable to the very people over whom they govern.

An initial glimpse of this residual legacy that has contributed to a pervasive cultural anachronism that has undermined social progress is seen in the roadside capture by a vigilante mob on the morning after the celebration of a young chicken thief who, without the presence of Téno and his camera, would have undoubtedly been beaten to death. With the mob persuaded by a village elder to instead take the young boy to the village chief (who, in the meantime, has been forced to strip off his clothes (as dictated by ancient tradition) before starting on his humiliating public march), the pattern of self-absolution, blind deference to authority, and inconsistent, open-ended justice continues when the chief is reluctant to personally sanction the boy’s beating, and instead decides to send him to the police station, rationalizing that only the police are empowered to conduct such a beating with impunity.

Another manifestation is revealed in an interview with the director of a women’s crisis center who remarks that Cameroon is still governed by an archaic combination of the French Civil Code of 1804 (long after the French, themselves, have updated the code) and unwritten, ancestral tradition defined by a patriarchal society, pointing out inconsistent legal definitions such as the notion that a man can only be is only guilty of adultery if it is committed in his own home, while a woman can be guilty of committing adultery anywhere. Moreover, with young girls (often from poor, provincial families) entering into undocumented, traditional marriages rather than civil marriages, many discover too late that they (and their children) do not have any legal rights to property or support when their husbands drive them away from their homes years later, since they are not considered legally married.

The concluding example is illustrated through the inner workings of the justice system, as seen through the eyes of Pius Njawé, editor of the independent publication, Le Messager, who had run afoul with the government after reporting on President Paul Biya’s abrupt departure from a soccer match. Encountering a justice system rife with corruption (such as a codified bribery schedule to ensure even the simple procedural act of filing formal charges), Njawé becomes a first-hand witness to the systematic imprisonment of the poor and disenfranchised (who cannot afford to pay the bribes and therefore, languish in jails without ever receiving a trial).

Téno’s complex and organic, yet cohesive and insightful essay is an incisive portrait of the culturally ingrained, self-destructive fusion of perpetuated, inhumane (and patriarchal) ancestral traditions and obsolete, subjugative colonial-era civil codes that continue to enable the political mechanism of dictatorships, widespread corruption, social stratification, and human rights violation. Inevitably, what emerges in Téno’s penetrating examination, is not only of the social, political, and economic malaise that continues to plague Cameroonian contemporary history under the “peaceful democracy” pyramidal power structure of the presidency, but also reflects the endemic state of many post-colonial African countries at the end of the twentieth century. As the filmmaker similarly (and incisively) articulates in his earlier documentary Africa, I Will Fleece You, native empowerment comes, not from archaic (and increasingly arcane) birthright self-anointments of chiefdom, but from education, social awareness, and humanity.

Africa, I Will Fleece You, 1993. As a young boy growing up in the newly independent nation of Cameroon, Jean-Marie Téno’s grandfather would tell him a great many tales to fuel his fertile imagination, among them, the story of a land inhabited by larks that, on one auspicious day, was stumbled upon by a group of hunters. Realizing the abundance of the land, the hunters decided to settle, enslaving the larks for their own personal gain before installing a chief to rule over them after their departure. However, the chief, as it turned out, was not actually a lark but was instead a hunter-sorcerer who, fearing his own mortality, slipped into the body of a newborn lark, creating a strange, new breed of larks that no longer had a sense of duty to its brethren nor respect for its fragile habitat. It is this national allegory of exploited and corrupted, “false” larks within the native, ancestral land of larks that Téno alludes to in the title of his film Africa, I Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai), a play on the children’s song Alouette. Ostensibly presented as a thoughtful, stream-of-consciousness personal essay on the filmmaker’s beloved, academian city of Yaounde, the film evolves into a broader political and cultural commentary on the state (and perpetuated social ills) of post-independence Cameroon as the first post-colonial president, French ally, and self-anointed “Father of the Nation”, Ahmadou Ahidjo consolidated political power under a single party rule that inevitably set the repressive authoritarian framework for the heavy handed government (and wide-scale corruption and political suppression) of his successor, Paul Biya.

Recounting his childhood memories of being encouraged to study and to work hard in order to be “as the whites”, Téno examines this culturally ingrained sentiment that has contributed to his country’s inability to exorcise itself from the specter of colonialism that has kept the nation impoverished and disenfranchised, creating an inextricable cycle of Western dependency that prompts an observer to insightfully comment, “the principal victory of colonization was also to have perpetuated a real cultural genocide.” In an incisive illustration of the country’s systematic cultural genocide, Téno enlists the aid of his friend Marie Claire Dati to visit the city’s major libraries: a bibliothèque that specializes in French-pressed, European authored publications and only offers a handful of books by African writers or on continental history (a cultural marginalization that is also revealed in Marie Claire’s surprise that the head librarian is actually an indigenous African rather than the more typical situation of a French curator); the British consulate library with a similar disproportionality of native books, the Goethe Institute that promotes German language studies. A trip to the international repository, CLE completes the cultural portrait of the state of contemporary literature in Cameroon – a library established by missionaries to promote (Western) Christian history and ideals – and establishes the implicit correlation between colonialism and missionary work towards the ingrained philosophy of erasing indigenous identity as a necessary step towards religious conversion (a theme further explored in Téno’s subsequent exposition The Colonial Misunderstanding): a systematic process that can only be turned back by cultural awareness, mutual respect, and self-empowerment.

Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]

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