THE ROLE OF FILMMAKING IN DEFINING CULTURAL IDENTITY

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Of recent times in the Gambia, we have seen an encouraging rise of Gambian film makers producing films that reflect realisms of Gambian social and cultural life. Such a positive endeavour should be encouraged by the government, supported by all and sundry because of its potential impact in shaping our image and identity as a people. It shouldn’t be competition oriented, rather it should serve as a platform that would accord film makers and the aspiring ones, the opportunity to interact, network and as well learn from each other. The experience and knowledge gained from such an endeavour would go a long way in equipping them with the requisite knowledge and as well help create a solid foundation for a vibrant film industry that would showcase Gambia’s cultural heritage and artistic potential through the lenses of Gambian film makers. As we strive with such endeavours to develop our cinema industry; by the same token, we should as well work towards developing our artistic repertoire to ensure a captivating reception from the wider world.

America got talent, so the Americans say, Arabs got talent, so the Arabs say. Both the Americans and the Arabs showcase their talents through their captivating media. In the same vein, please allow me to blow my own trumpet and say with confidence that GAMBIANS ALSO GOT TALENT but; let us first as a prelude, refine and develop our raw artistic talents and repertoire to enable us better showcase our cultural heritage and civilization as a people.

Though colonized, but that didn’t make us a lesser civilized people. Of course we are a civilized people. Our Jalibaa or Burr gewel did tell us who we are, but their presentation was oral, or ‘orature’ to borrow the words of the Ugandan linguist Pio Zirimu, who coined the word ‘orature’, but did not live long to develop the theory. An outsider for that matter intentionally or otherwise, wrote and misrepresented our history, and unfortunately his medium of presentation was the written word referred to as literature. It is therefore time to translate our ‘orature’ into literature. In so doing, we will rewrite our beautiful history and re-present it for the whole world to appreciate. The role of film making in this endeavour as an ideal vehicle for presenting our stories for posterity cannot be overemphasized.

The film maker, apart from his gadgets, his most important resource is the artist, whom he works with, to hammer home his stories. Thomas Paine once said that, if the pen is mightier than the sword, then the spoken word is mightier than both the pen and sword combined. Let me add that, the spoken word is mightier if only it is safeguarded for posterity, without which our glorified spoken words will be lost to the air.

There are of course the obstacles that we need to tackle, but obstacles we must address with honesty and sincerity. This requires a case study of our problem in respect of our cultural identity. The cultural crisis we are confronted with is caused by western acculturation thanks to the western media. In Africa today, western acculturation is the predominant cause of our eroding cultural norms and values. This situation is one of the negative bi-products of colonialism, whose education for the African was not premised on preparing an Afrocentric or self-loving African. Rather it de-Africanised the African by making him underestimate his intellectual potential and assimilated him to think and behave like his ‘’tubab’’ colonizer which in reality he will never be. Remember the African saying; no matter how long a stick stays in the sea, it will never be a crocodile. By virtue of our mis-education, it is a common occurrence in Africa today to hear a well-educated African by western standard, to first plead with his tribesmen when addressing them, to forgive him because he doesn’t have a good command of his mother’s tongue to articulately express him or herself. What kind of education can make such a person? Another contributing factor to the worsening of such a situation is the misguided program content of our mass media which unquestionably is a powerful tool for the dissemination of knowledge and the enlightening of the masses. The television particularly, apart from its core function of entertainment and information, is also a vehicle for nurturing understanding and appreciation for one’s culture and ideology. In most African countries today, the Gambia not an exception, the content of the television programmes we watch does not reflect, or seek to portray a national image or character based on our cultural identity. To add insult to injury, our school curricula leaves much to be desired, hence the prevailing cultural crisis reflecting the mis-education of most Africans today.

For the African to be seen and be heard and be respected, we need to endeavor to rebrand the African personality by portraying the African based on his culture and identity. To realize this goal, we need to revisit and review our education and culture, vis-á-vis national development and cultural identity. We need to assess the content of our education especially in terms of the history lessons taught, or social studies and civic education with a view to, moulding an African conscious and proud of his cultural heritage, an African that pays respect to unity in diversity. We need to introduce the teaching of cultural studies in all levels of our education system.

The indisputable role of the media in addressing this phenomenon cannot be over-emphasized. Since it is the media in the first place that was utilized as a vehicle for the brainwashing and indoctrination of the African; in the same vein, it is the same media that should again be utilized as a vehicle to repair the damages. As Africans we need to refocus our national cultural policies to give relevance and direction to our propaganda initiatives on national media. Emphasis should be placed on programs that project national image based on our culture and identity. Instead of spending huge amounts of monies to purchase Opera telefilms or other western movies, we should encourage the production of indigenous films that feature our culture and identity. Gambian film making should be encouraged to complement the efforts of the National Centre for Arts and Culture, and be facilitated to produce films that would not only entertain, but re-orientate the masses; films or media content that would appeal particularly to the psyche of the African youths, who are the most vulnerable to western acculturation. This however does not mean that we should abandon the western repertoire in our media. No man is an island; therefore any attempt aimed at totally abandoning western content in our media repertoire could be counterproductive in the context of globalization. There is therefore the need for a tactful approach capable of projecting a cultured African with a broad understanding of the diverse cultures of the world at large. We readily have the raw talents to refine, brand and promote as uniquely ours, but we are yet to live up to the task.

African theatre has evolved through generations to what it is today, and is often mistaken for contemporary, modern or westernised African theatre. Given the adverse and imperial forces of western acculturation in Africa today, one is tempted to believe that contemporary African theatre has its roots in the west. This however is not true if one looks at African theatre from a broader perspective beyond contemporary to African indigenous theatrical life.

Theatre in general, can be simply defined as an activity in which an actor plays a role other than himself through mime, speech, song and dance movements to convey or communicate a message to an audience. If this is an accurate definition of theatre, then theatre has always been deeply ingrained in African lifestyles. Indigenous African theatre focused on day-to-day activities and was an integral part of the whole conception of existence. Theatre in Africa was a communal activity whilst in western theatre, cultural forms of expression are compartmentalised and beautified with lighting, sound effects etc. and one individual taking ownership of the theatrical productions among other things,

Theatre in Africa existed within its functional context and it sought to perpetuate the virtues of society and purge all evil. Through theatre we tell our story with the accompaniment of songs and the audience invited to participate with the ultimate goal of instilling moral values in the hearts and minds of members of society. Africans are theatrical by nature which is amply evident in our ceremonial songs and cultural manifestations. We sing and dance on the first to the last day of our lives. We sing and dance to welcome the newly born baby and sing and dance when we mourn our departed souls or when we seek spiritual guidance, protection or blessing from our departed ancestors. We exorcise our mentally ill by singing and dancing to entertain and appease the spirits when one of us is possessed by evil spirit. (‘’ndopa’’ in Wollof). These cultural forms and manifestations among others, shows that theatre is undoubtedly an integral part of our lives as African, but this is only appreciated if one understands the motive of our cultural forms and manifestations and the stories and messages they relay metaphorically.

It is therefore not enough to read all the books on African history and claim expertise on African culture. It is one thing to read African history, but more important is for one to understand and appreciate African culture for what it is and its aesthetic. Therefore knowledge and appreciation of our culture and artistic traditions could go a long way in helping our development planners or policy makers; who ironically are often the most vocal with unrealistic academic theories inappropriate for our cultural development aspirations.

Culture evolves, and as Africans we have our own stories to tell now rather than later, to showcase our diverse cultural heritage, norms and values. There is no better person to tell these stories authentically but us, we the Africans. So who tells the story and how the story is told is worth considering for posterity. In the good olden days, there used to be story telling sessions held after dinner when all the kids would retire to the courtyard while grand mom or dad would tell stories of substance and relevance to day to day life. Story telling was used as a pedagogical tool to teach the kids essential lessons and as well equip them with the requisite knowledge of life and its vicissitudes. Today, we say we are civilized; but I ask; are we ‘civilized’, or are we ‘westernized’? Our lifestyle as Africans is a paradox to our cultural heritage. In the olden days, there were no televisions or these communication devices we have nowadays to facilitate the easy transmission of stories, hence practical narratives such as story telling were the most effective means of inculcating the desired African values. The custodians of such stories though scarce nowadays, but there are few that are still around, and it is now while they are alive that we should document and safeguard their knowledge for posterity.

A good reference in this regard is the Senegalese television content of recent times which is focusing on indigenous stories, be it cultural, historical or contemporary. The Senegalese are usually referred to, as very French-assimilated, given their comportment and mannerisms, but of recent times they are trying to reinvent the will by producing their own television drama series that have now captivated the attention of all. Cafe Avec, Wirri Wirri, Dina ma Nekh, the list goes on. Such productions don’t only save money, but it also develops the arts and artists of the country. It is definitely indisputable that, for us to attain the desired level of cultural awareness, we must first and foremost make our development planners or policy makers and all duty bearers in this endeavour to understand the role of culture in determining our national character.

Culture as we all know is not static, and is both evolutionary and revolutionary. As such, given the advent of modern technology, film-making if developed and wisely utilised can undoubtedly help in nurturing and promoting cultural identity for the African, the Gambian not an exception.

 Tijaan Kamara is a multi-talented artist, creator, administrator and disseminator of arts and culture; a former art teacher, lecturer of Artistic Traditions at the UTG and former Board Chairman, National Centre for Arts and Culture.

Source: Picture: Tijaan Kamara