A ‘new wave’ of African film

This is a somewhat-abbreviated version of a post I did for Africa is a Country, read the full version here.

“Sometimes I wonder: Will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other?” says Leonardo DiCaprio, sullen and bleary-eyed, stoically staring just off camera.

“… I look around and I realize…” pause for emotion, “God left this place a long time ago.”

“This place” is the civil war-torn country of Sierra Leone in 1999, the setting for 2006s Blood Diamond.  Using the illegal diamond trade as the backdrop for the primarily character-driven storyline, the film carries a hefty social conscience for a big budget Hollywood action/drama.

Blood Diamond is one of Hollywood’s “message films” that allow Americans to leave the Cineplex feeling a little bit better about themselves after seeing an “educational” film about disenfranchised Africans.  And you can now impress your friends at parties with your knowledge of world events.

Don’t get me wrong, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, DiCaprio as the “bad guy with a heart” who helps the black man find his son—these are all good mainstream films.  Meaning they won numerous awards and only the best things win awards.

This is why I noticed Viva Riva!, the Congolese gangster film that won the “Best African Film” award at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards last month in Los Angeles, CA.

Yes, the MTV Movie Awards now has a “Best African Film” category.

I think it was presented while the stars of Twilight: Eclipse were shuffling back and forth from their seats with their golden popcorn statues. But, as Sean Jacobs pointed out on Africa is a Country last month, “That’s the kind of publicity African films can’t buy and should count for something when the film opens in [the US]…”

The folks at MTV, who also honored DiCaprio’s Inception co-star Ellen Page in the “Best Scared-As-Sh*t Performance” category, may be onto something with their inaugural Best African Film award, pointing to a larger trend among Western audiences who are finding that there is more to Africa than what Hollywood tells us about in its “message films.”

There are several possible explanations as to why Westerners have a growing and earnest interest in learning more about African pop culture.  Perhaps I could continue citing the success of critically acclaimed African cinema, or mention the growth of the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, into the third highest grossing film industry in the world, behind Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.  Or maybe I could point to the inquisitive, over-zealous, at-times-inane reporting on South Africa by international media as they set out like Louis and Clark to discover the country hosting the FIFA World Cup last June.  OR I could just put up a link with a picture of George Clooney in Chad, looking ragged but smiling as he shakes the hands of children—who I assume are orphans because it’s Africa and I’m American—and someone would click on it because they’re curious or to satiate their unrequited love for George Clooney.

Simply put, it’s the internet. The digital collective experience created by the Internet has opened doors to places that previously required a passport and an expensive plane ticket to get to.  The next time you go online to watch Lady Gaga’s newest music video, your curiosity may get the upper hand and maybe you’ll actually learn something by spending an hour wandering around Youtube.

Despite my snark, films like Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland are successful, but they only tell one, highly-fictionalized story from one perspective.  MTV may not be the cultural spearhead it once was but that gilded box of popcorn provides us with another link to click on, another clip to watch, and another celebrity to follow on Twitter.

In the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, in an unidentifiable African accent, “This. Is. Africa.”