In 1998, retired actress Zalika Souley, the grand dame and first professional actress of Nigerien cinema, was honored with the country’s Knight of the National Legion of Honor medal for her pioneering work in the film industry, a bittersweet ceremony that, for the now financially struggling middle-aged woman, would prove to be equally validating, celebratory, and intrinsically hypocritical. For inasmuch as the honor seemingly reflected the nation’s acknowledgement of a lifetime of service and dedication to the advancement of Niger’s cultural arts – a vocational passion that, as Souley would subsequently explain, also entailed accepting roles without remuneration to hone her craft (but also included exploitation by directors who reneged on contractual salary due to creative differences or after cutting her scenes during the final editing of the film) as well as (involuntarily) serving in an unofficial role as the (then) government’s cultural ambassador to other countries during film festival appearances – it also presents the plight of these now aging artists and performers who, at the end of their film careers, have drifted into increasing poverty as a result of limited opportunity for retaining work in some other capacity within the industry (a national industry that once ushered the birth of native African cinema with Le Retour d’un Aventurier, but is now, itself, on the verge of collapse at the end of the century due to inadequate funding and reluctance by corporate sponsors to take an investment risk in the productions), bureaucratic pettiness, and even social stigmatization (particularly from conservative Muslims who view the industry’s incorporation of more permissive, Western themes as an overt rejection of native tradition), even as their status as national celebrities remain undiminished. In Al’leessi…An African Actress, filmmaker Rahmatou Keita not only presents a loving tribute to the genesis and creative heyday of Nigerien indigenous cinema of the 1960s, but also examines the plight of aging post-colonial African film pioneers like Souley whose status as cultural icons of national cinema sharply diverges from the sobering reality of their modest (if not impoverished) contemporary lives. At the heart of Keita’s understated, yet penetrating examination is a series of interviews with the affable and sharp-witted Souley as she conducts the mundane rituals of her everyday life in the capital city of Niamey where she lives with her children in a rented apartment without modern utilities – an ennobled artist who is palpably aware of the significance of her enduring legacy to the national arts, even as she resigns her cherished memories to a distant, irretrievable golden age, and to the reality of a once comfortable lifestyle that has gradually eroded away in her twilight years. In tracing the post-film careers of these creative innovators, Keita not only exposes the inhumane treatment of the elderly as they are systematically cast away after outliving their career “usefulness”, but also the underscores the broader, underlying social crisis of the devaluation of the role of the arts towards the advancement of civilization and cultural progress in the wake of a disproportionately impersonal, dehumanized, and unsentimental material economy.
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