‘Moustapha Alassane x 3’
The credit for the first African feature film with an African protagonist—Aouré (1962)—and the first full-color animated film produced on the African continent—Samba the Great (Samba le Grand) (1977)—belongs to Moustapha Alassane. A pioneering Nigerien filmmaker who has yet to enjoy due recognition for his prolific career as one of the most important figures of early African cinema, Alassane almost single-handedly made the 1970s a high point for film production in Niger following the country’s independence from France in 1960. Both Aouré and Samba the Great will be shown as part of a retrospective at Metrograph of ten of Alassane’s short films, which will be divided into three separate showings.
Alassane’s films staged a sharp and innovative negotiation between local, oral modes of storytelling and new narrative techniques and cultural influences drawn from contact with Western cinema. Born in 1942 in the village of N’Dougou, he started out as a mechanic. An autodidact, Alassane began putting on shadow and puppet shows for his neighbors—what might be regarded as pre-cinematic creative endeavors. At the time, the filmmaking wing of the IRSH (l’Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines), located in the capital of Niamey, was operating under the supervision of French filmmaker and ethnographer Jean Rouch. Alassane received his formal film training there and then traveled to Canada, where he refined his animation technique with the celebrated Canadian animator Norman McLaren.
Back in Niger in 1962, Alassane was plagued with difficulties securing state funding and other financial support. He was nevertheless prolific and tirelessly engaged: he continued to make films examining the tumultuous nature of post-independence Nigerien society, focusing especially on the hypocrisies of the postcolonial bourgeoisie and the multivalent effects of Western culture. His signature parodic tone is compelling for its precise combination of populist politics and the inflections of a parable. In Bon Voyage Sim (1966), he maps a biting socio-political satire onto a charming cast of animated and anthropomorphized frogs. Samba, an adaptation of a fable about the escalating requests demanded of a suitor by a princess, is an especially strong example of Alassane’s imaginative use of film as a means of capturing oral tradition. His translation of orality into cinema was a preservation of this cornerstone of West African cultural identity against the threat of post-colonial cultural erosion.
Samba is one of two of his films that were restored this year by the film preservationist Bill Brand, and the screening at Metrograph, co-programmed with Amélie Garin-Davet at the French embassy in New York, will be this version’s North American premiere. The second, Le Retour d’un aventurier (1966), mounts a confrontation between modernity and tradition, colonial imports and local mores, through the story of a traveler who returns to his home village with a trunkful of American cowboy garb, which he distributes among his friends. The playful insertion of Hollywood tropes into Alassane’s contemporary Niger creates a hybrid genre, a kind of Sahelian Western that meditates on how power operates across cultural difference. The film is also an examination of social performance, using play-acting and masquerade as a metaphor for the ways African youths digested Western influences to produce hybrid forms of cultural expression across the continent in the 1960s.
Alassane made around thirty films, all in Sub-Saharan Africa—ranging from animations and documentaries to feature films, playing on every register from westerns to political satire to fable. But until recently, his work had remained largely uncirculated. The first North American retrospective of his films was organized in 2017 by Josh Siegel and Garin-Davet at MoMA, and it proved a turning point in the wider circulation of his work. Two of his films were aptly contextualized by programmer Elspeth Carroll this summer at Film Forum, screening alongside shorts by his relatively more recognized contemporaries, Djibril Diop Mambéty and Ousmane Sembène, in a series devoted to decolonizing cinema. This year, Alassane’s work also cycled through Montreal at the Cinémathèque Québécoise and the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. That his films are now traveling so widely is befitting of an oeuvre characterized by such a multitude of journeys, transformations, and fraught cultural encounters. This comprehensive retrospective at Metrograph offers a unique capsule of film-making history from the perspective of a Sahelian luminary whose work is rightfully moving from margin to center.
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