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April 8, 2007

Clouds Over Conakry, 2007

conakry.gifFollowing a lively introductory performance by a traditional African griot, the 14th annual New York African Film Festival officially opened with the film, Clouds Over Conakry from Guinean filmmaker Cheick Fantamady Camara, a selection that seems ideally suited to the festival's commemoration of Africa's 50 years of independence and (indigenous) cinema - a humorous, lyrical, and engaging, yet thoughtful and impassioned cautionary tale on the intractable social dichotomies between tradition and modernity - the personal (and cultural) struggle to find moral balance between upholding indigenous customs and embracing progressive ideals - that continue to shape contemporary African society. At the heart of the conflict is a talented political cartoonist and artist, Bangali, affectionately known as BB (a homonymous nickname that alludes to the film's catalytic cultural collision, an out of wedlock baby) who pseudonymously signs his newspaper with a rudimentary glyph in order to conceal his life's vocation (and passion) from his father, a superstitious, and deeply old fashioned marabout. In love with his mentor and editor's beautiful daughter, Kesso, a web designer who, on a whim, entered the audition for the Miss Guinea pageant and now unexpectedly finds herself competing for the title, BB's hopes for a life together with his beloved Kesso and a professional career as an artist is soon dimmed when his father, having experienced a dream that he believes was guided by the spirit of their village ancestors, decides to bypass his religious, older son's wishes to study abroad and become an imam, and instead, chooses his visibly disinterested younger son, BB, to succeed him in their ancestral vocation. But when his father is summoned by a government official to lead a prayer service on a pre-appointed day and time to help end the city's unseasonable drought - a divine invocation that seems all too conveniently effective - BB begins to question the integrity of the often conflicting advice offered by well-intentioned people around him. Beyond the often explored territory of cultural contradiction, perhaps what makes Clouds Over Conakry particularly insightful is Camara's ability to capture the moral nuances and shades of grey that appropriately - and relevantly - capture the complexity of contemporary existence: the father's infusion of tribal fetishism with Islamic worship is confronted through the older son's orthodox scholarship of the Qur'an, and who, in turn, is confronted with the inhumanity intrinsic in his more fundamentalist views towards the (mis)treatment of women; a woman's reproductive rights paradoxically brings tragedy to both sides of the ideological debate; the idea of a free press is compromised by the editor's self-censorship approach to the reporting (and suppression) of information in order to avoid controversy and maintain the paper's access to influential leaders (and implicitly, uphold the status quo); the separation of church and state is blurred by the political cultivation of alliances with influential spiritual leaders in an attempt to rein in loyal, faith-based voters into their political campaigns.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival


I caught this as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival, with the director in attendance to field questions. I really liked this film, not the least for its guiding you down a narrative track of seeming resolution only to sidetrack into tragic consequences that added a striking layer of complexity to the narrative. I had never heard of "honor killings" before and the director confirmed it is an ongoing practice that has caused much controversy. The film agitated its Burkina Faso audience and--with a theater being built so that the film can be shown in Guinea--one can only wonder what the reaction will be there.

In its pro-life stance, I was afraid to ask it for fear of being misinterpreted and poking a hornet's nest; but what really struck me in the film was that--even as it criticized traditional fetishism--it didn't wholly endorse modernity as life-affirming, indicated by the narrative thread of the previous girlfriend's abortion. Did you pick up on that, Acquarello, or am I reading too much into it?

Posted by: Maya on Oct 15, 2007 10:47 AM | Permalink

Hi, Maya, yeah I got that impression too. I was thinking that not only did Camara want to make Bangali "consistent" so as not to cloud the issue, but also that he was saying something about the need to retain the good in traditions while getting rid of the inhumane ones. There was terrible price for the ex-girlfriend doing what she wanted, just as there was for them going along with what their elders wanted. I thought it was unusually "grey" for an African film, actually; it's not a straight fable with a deductive moral.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 15, 2007 6:44 PM | Permalink

I watched Clouds with Djanta, which by contrast fell into black vs. white from the getgo. There the father, also another tradition-bound beast, had no shading to him whatsoever. You didn't get the sense that he was traditional because he cared about tradition, as in Clouds, but because it granted him heterosexist privilege. And there modernity was associated with a White Christian missionary father who was good in contrast to the Black tradition-bound father. It suffered for being aimed at an afterschool special on the exhausted binary: tradition vs. modernity.

Posted by: Maya on Oct 15, 2007 9:41 PM | Permalink

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