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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Francophone African Cinema

Figueira, D. V. F., photographer. Baobab tree, Africa.1900-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

There is no singular Francophone African cinema. The use of French by so many African directors is a legacy of colonization, the spread of the early French filmmakers' art and equipment throughout the empire. Barring that commonality, directors from Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Democratic Republic of Congo, etc., reflect their countries' unique histories, tribal affiliations, languages, ethnicities, economies, and cultures.

Filmmaking by Africans began with Senegalese director Sembène Ousmane's 1961 feature La Noire de.../Black Girl. Before this, Europeans, such as those funded by the Lumière brothers, had turned the camera on Africans for European consumption. Directors made ethnographic films about colonies including Senegal, Algeria, the Belgian Congo, etc., which served mainly to justify la mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission of colonization. Jean Rouch is an example of one of these ethnographic filmmakers, although one whose films became critical of colonial powers. (More information on Rouch can be found here.)

Africa was also forced into a passive filmic role when sites such as the Algiers Casbah served as an exoticized backdrop for films such as Pépé le Moko (1937, dir. Julian Duvivier) and Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs/Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1954, dir. Jacques Becker), denying Africans a say in the representation of their countries.

Nevertheless, Sembène changed this. He began his artistic career as a writer, inspired by his time as a dockworker and soldier. This part of his life imbued his work with empathy towards the downtrodden. In fact, many of his literary protagonists are working-class or poor people, tyrannized women, or those exploited by colonization and decolonization.

As his career unfolded, Sembène began to realize that due to the high rate of illiteracy in Africa, his work would be more effective in visual form, so he moved to film as a medium of social justice. La Noire de.../Black Girl, his first feature, is a French-language film based on the true story of a Senegalese housekeeper's suicide. It was followed in 1968 by Mandabi/The Money Order, the first film in Wolof.

Sembène's influence both in Africa and internationally paved the way for Nollywood in Nigeria, and encouraged other African filmmakers including Med Hondo (Mauritania), Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (Algeria), Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon), Souleymane Cissé (Mali), Jean-Pierre Lledo (Algeria), Moufida Tlatli (Tunisia), Djibril Diop Mambéty (Senegal), Yamina Benguigui (Algeria), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Abedllatif Kechiche (Tunisia), Mwezé Ngangura (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Assia Djebar (Algeria), Mohamed Camara (Guinea), and Abderrahman Sissako (Mauritania), among many others.

After independence from France, soft power in the form of technical and financial assistance to African filmmakers lingered on the continent and kept France's influence alive in African cinema.

An example of this is the Consortium Audiovisuel Interational (CAI), which provided aid for the production of documentaries and newsreels, or the Bureau du Cinéma, which provided technical advice and funding. Ties such as these meant that the vast majority of African films made after colonial independence were Francophone. This was positive in the sense that it ensured African film output, but also meant that films deemed too critical of France were unlikely to receive aid or distribution.

French directors were not immune to this ideological censorship on the subject of Africa. Films critical of the French government and military, especially in regard to the Algerian independence movement, were often censored or not shown in France until years or decades later. Examples are Algérie en flammes/Algeria in Flames (1958, dir. René Vautier), Le Petit Soldat/The Little Soldier (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard), La Bataille d'Alger/The Battle of Algiers (1967, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo), and Camp de Thiaroye (1988, dir. Sembène Ousmane).

Despite economic and technical challenges, the African film world began to unite and build support for itself when the Tunisian actor/writer Tahar Cheriaa founded the Journées cinématographiques de Carthage/Carthage Film Festival.

In 1969, the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes/Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) followed and, to this day, supports African filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition. Soon after FEPACI, the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou/Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), in Burkina Faso, followed in a similar mission. (More information on these festivals can be found here.)

Consult the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room collections for additional materials. For help locating more resources refer to the guide, African, Jewish, and Middle Eastern Studies: Digital Resources at the Library of Congress. The bibliography below lists films and resources covering Francophone African cinema in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.