The Open Field - Some notes on the figure of walking in African film
To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. (de Certeau 1988: 112-113)
When Uganda’s opposition took to the streets a number of times in April to protest against the rising cost of living, they used “Walk to Work Campaign” as the motto for their demonstrations – people were to walk to work so they could display their displeasure without it looking like an unauthorised demonstration. This takes for granted two things that even just a generation ago were not a given in Africa’s large cities: people have to have work and normally not go to work on foot. (Dominic Johnson: 2001)
As an apparatus of production in the sense of an imagination machine, cinema is often too sluggish to hit the nerve of the present day, that is, presentness itself. But the provisory lightness of the documentary form may allow something fleeting to enter the picture that can hold together an entire film: a gesture that reveals everything in one moment, a posture that tells more than a story does. And this may be brought about less by the expressions embodied in gestures, than by moments in which someone crosses the picture or leaves it, flees from it, and makes the attempt to arrive in the Now by walking.
This text follows a fictive route of films. Although far from making any claim to completeness, even if this were possible, it inquires as to what extent presentations of walking can serve to tell of a state of mind without explaining or psychologising it; the text follows deserters, whose flight, as a form of stubborn advance, resists given circumstances; it examines both individual manners of walking and those formed collectively. In the process, the films themselves become material. Even though it is impossible to give details of their content, and disregarding whether or to whom the films are known or not, this written interrogation of the walking movements they contain attempts to break up their rigid form and to create new narrative connections.
After a fragmented pan shot over the high-rises, facades and roofs of Johannesburg, the camera of Ernst Artaria and Emil Knebel in Lionel Rogosins’ Come Back Africa (1950) ends up in the midst of traffic and passers-by. After a few shots of the colourful downtown hustle and bustle, the camera concentrates on a group of men coming from the railway station. They march purposefully one behind the other; their clothing indicates poverty. The train has brought them to the city from rural areas, and now they form a kind of convoy. They seem to be taking on the modern city, but are only crossing through it on their way to the nearby mine. The visibility of the workers, of those seeking work, is demonstrated just for a moment, their passage resembles a demonstration, and before they disappear into the darkness of the mine and their bodies can be recognised only as organless, weaving lamps, their path crosses that of those people who are perhaps hurrying to their offices in suit and tie, or strolling past shop windows.
From the start, African cinema has repeatedly dealt with going away and coming back. And although the departure is often motivated by the search for work, images deliberately presenting a combination of work and walking are only seldom to be found – apart from the thematicisation of various types of work in the streets of the large cities. It is a different matter with European films d’auteur in recent years or independent cinema in the USA and Japan, where one can find a number of motifs concerned with walking or roaming about that are connected with the loss of or search for a job, or a found one. In African cinema, departure as an actual going away on foot is to be found rather as the last possible remaining form of locomotion, although every other means of transport would, of course, be preferable. ‘Better you die on your feet’: it’s preferable to sitting there waiting for death (Arlit, deuxième Paris, 2005 by Idrissou Mora Kpai). Walking in order to overcome mental and physical borders or even to penetrate into metaphysical spheres is something for the over-satiated middle classes, adventurers and tourists from the north. No one goes on foot of their own free will.
As far back as 1973, in Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambety imagined, keeping the sea obsessively in view, a migration movement as a kind of implosion of high and low tide. Going away, coming back and staying all happen simultaneously. At the end of the film there is the picture of someone running: Mory, the drover, slacker and crook, who was just about to board the ship to ‘Paris, Paris, Paris, c’est sur la terre un coin d’paradis’ with his girlfriend, Anta. While Anta sits waiting on deck with a huge suitcase on her knees, in a pink trousersuit with a straw hat on her head, Mory turns his back on the gangway and starts running. He runs into the past and the future at the same time; he runs as someone driven, someone who is haunted by the pictures of his childhood, from the bellowing of the cows in the abattoir, pictures of the savannah, a fat policeman. He runs against the pictures and back to them. Mory runs in order to run; he runs up against his fear and flees from it. He runs to Africa, which he knows, and flees from the phantasm of Europe. We hear a mixture of Afrobeat, a saxophone gone wild, funk, a sound that leads directly to Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971). This film disobeys every rule and makes running its central motif. Here, too, fleeing, running away, is at the same time a running against circumstances. Like a psychedelic dream, the sequence of images jumps without restraint over its axis and between points of view in a mixture of Afro-American historical reference and self-empowerment.
Heremakono – Waiting for Happiness (2002 by Abderrahmane Sissako) starts in Mauritania near Nouadhibou, a place directly on the sea. In the shade, his back leant against a clay hut, a man is sitting with a car tyre next to him. He moves off into the undefined sandy surroundings, dragging the tyre with one hand. There is not much walking in Heremakono; rather, the film describes the kind of paralysis that occurs when the possibility of leaving a place is blocked, but the imagination has already gone too far to content itself with staying. Sissako draws fine lines between departure, desire, stagnation, remaining behind, apart from material necessity, until a sensitivity to every real vehicle is developed. At the end, the camera is positioned on one side of the tracks; a boy can be seen crouching with his hands clenched tight while the train leaves across the middle of the image. He had been caught trying to hide in a goods wagon. Once the train has gone past, the boy seems to turn towards a different life. At the next cut, we again see a picture of the desert similar to those in the first shots in the film. The boy gradually appears behind a sand hill; we cannot tell what direction he is taking. His silhouette merges into a somewhat abstract picture of a desert that must constantly be crossed.
In the same year, 2002, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun made Abouna – Our Father. Here, too, in the first minutes the camera follows a figure until it vanishes behind a sand hill in the desert. A father goes, like many others. Two sons remain behind who in their turn set off to look for their father. Every film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is centred around motions of search. He is as much concerned with the search for a way of making and distributing films in Chad as – even more generally – with the search for the meaning of cinema (Bye, Bye Africa, 1999), the search for the murderer of a father and revenge (Daratt, 2006) and the search for forgiveness (Un homme qui crie, 2010).
What do people do when they walk and what is revealed by walking? In the Western history of philosophy and literature, before Walter Benjamin invented the flâneur (Benjamin: 1983) and the Situationists ‘psychogeographic drifting’ (Debord: 1958), it was probably the author of the Comédie Humaine, Honoré de Balzac, who in 1830 was one of the first to attach decisive importance to the question of this apparently perfectly natural sequence of motions. Driven by amazement at being the first, and dizzied by the risk of losing the ground under his feet while examining such a diffuse object, in his ‘Théorie de la démarche’ he not only makes a number of distinctions that place posture, gait, class, mood and voice in a mutually moving relationship: as well as interrogating walking as such, he also poses the question of how to go forward or proceed. For Balzac, this produces another decisive aspect: the fact that walking makes everything visible. In his theory of walking, everything becomes surface. (Balzac 1997: 70)
In cinema, the question of the surface is also always the question of the way the shot is taken, the framing, the choice of lens and, determined by this, the distance of the camera to its subject. The picture has to open up if the body is to be shown from head to foot. The face loses its predominant importance and thus the expression of inner depth. When the body is looked at as a whole, the narration loses its dominance and attention is shifted to the complex and fragile interplay between movement, posture and surroundings. The body serves as a kind of mirror of its surroundings, while at the same time being the conqueror of it. What editing rhythm allows us to start perceiving someone moving on foot as a walker? How long does a shot need to be to make walking visible as walking? What walking do we see when the camera itself ‘walks’?
Filming people while they are walking in such a way as to show an individual state of mind requires a knowledge of and familiarity with the location and a fictional imagination connected with the location. Someone coming from outside tends to film from a safe distance: for instance, from a window on the first floor of a building or from the window of a moving car. The fleeting view of a street, past pedestrians who rapidly flit by and are left behind, and who move on foot at a different speed than any automobile, which quickly recedes into the distance, often seems like an attempt to take up contact with a life that is far remote. What becomes visible is at best an atmosphere, a mood, a possibility of starting up a story in the midst of the crowd. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun also starts his first feature film (he had previously made several short films), which he made in Chad, in a taxi. After more than 10 years in France, his training as a filmmaker and work as a journalist, he returns only for his mother’s funeral. In contrast with Abouna, Daratt or Un homme qui crie, in Bye, Bye Africa there is a lot of talking. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun talks with and through the pictures, holds many interviews, and jumps back and forth between a subjective and an objectivising point of view. He is part of the motion of search.
In both Abouna and Daratt, many shots use walking to establish a connection with the characters and the story of the film. Walking brings friendship, familiarity, routes, walking together, walking apart and walking behind one another into the picture. In Daratt, walking gains meaning at a symbolic level when shoes and slippers are the only things left on the street after people lose their heads, or in this case their shoes, when running for their lives from a series of volleys of gunfire. And, in Abouna, death is also shown as walking, when the younger brother is carried through the woods in a coffin and a small procession forms around him, synchronising individual, scattered forms of walking.
In Come Back Africa, Lionel Rogosin has presented these transitions from individuality to collective synchronisation in condensed form. The film was registered with the South African authorities as a documentary about music and tourism, and while carrying out his hidden project, Rogosin developed a fine sense for creating a picture of reality as near as possible to the visible public sphere. Rogosin shows a crumbling and complex surface using a dynamic, escalating sequence of cuts that makes it obvious how the choreography, organisation and formation of a political movement takes concrete form on the street – on foot – in opposition to the segregation of the South African apartheid society. And he uses a group of youngsters who play pennywhistle jive at various street corners, attracting clusters of listeners, and polyrhythmic drums, bells, cornets and guitars that are played by different groups, to show the necessary connection between maintaining individual difference and the coherence of an oppositional movement.
Films that lead us to reflect on walking, even when there is not much of it, are often films that attempt to wrest a picture from reality and are not already subservient to the norms of its media representation, its invention or domestication. A full shot showing walking rarely reflects a controlling kind of gaze. The perspective and nature of a picture made by a surveillance camera, for example, which is fully revealing in another sense, allows us to constantly see people moving about on foot, but their physical constitution remains invisible in this context. Having walking in mind when making films or watching these films also means developing a sense of a physicality that is in itself complex and has to do with a body that is knowing – not in the sense of an action cinema based on the body that calls for a complete exploitation of the body or that lives from its instincts and natural forces, but a body in the cinematic space that interacts with thought.
At the end of La noire de… (1966) by Ousmane Sembene, it is a French boss who is returning to Dakar. He was the employer of a young woman from Dakar who worked for him and his wife as a domestic help in France and who took her own life there in the bath. He comes to the young woman’s former home with a suitcase full of the belongings she has left, an African mask under his arm and an inappropriate bundle of bank notes.
Africa starts where you have to go on foot. That is basically the way it is shown by several films from Dakar of the 1960s and 1970s. In them, the same pedestrian bridge bearing an advertising banner for Air-Afrique is constantly crossed. The bridge leads over a much too busy arterial road to a residential district, to Colobane, where the roads are not sealed and are full of potholes, crooked wooden huts stand in a row and life takes place on the street. The boss is the only white person in this area; his unease is visible. He had to leave his protective cover, his car, on the other side of the bridge. Sembene shows this forced walk as a confrontation with reality, a penetration of and exposure to reality, if only for a few minutes, and with the option of being able to turn away again at once from this reality.
Les Princes de Saint Germain (1975), the first short film by Ben Diogaye Beve, begins as if Mory from Touki Bouki had managed to leave Dakar for Paris after all. The camera of George Bracher clings to the garish bell-bottoms of Wasis Diop, the younger brother of Djibril Diop Mambety, who had done the sets and costumes for Touki Bouki, while Ben Diogaye Beye assisted with direction. Diop marches with a deliberately leisurely gait past the display windows, swinging an umbrella. He ostentatiously celebrates a provocative style, leisure and the rejection of any form of work. Ben Diogave Beve follows several such princes through Saint Germain and shows how they chat up pretty French girls, who in their turn seem to be mostly interested in sex. And after twenty carefree minutes he ends with the note in the closing credits: ‘Fifteen years of independence and still the same clichés.’
In A nous deux France (1970), Desiré Ecaré, a filmmaker from Ivory Coast, also begins there, on the streets of Paris. He, too, does not show the hard working conditions of African migrants, or close-ups of besoms, street-sweepers and their disillusioned faces, but overdrawn figures in harsh black and white, almost slapstick, who conquer and occupy the street with sweeping gestures. Diogave Beve and Ecaré both reject any theme dealing with socio-critical problematics (as would do Med Hondo), working instead with an approach that does not burden the presence of the young women and men from Ivory Coast with the question of their origin. Memphis Slim composed the film music for Ecaré, and the characters in A nous deux France are also oriented towards Afro-American models. With deadly seriousness, they speak sentences such as: ‘You have to keep your dignity even when you’re living in misery’ or ‘The situation in Africa requires us to remain constantly mobile,’ using these as reasons to spend the night with a lover. Ecaré takes his deliberately small, light-weight story about a female singing talent, jealousy and love’s bewitchments to a point that leads all the characters to disappointment and paralysis, to the question that chimes in with Slim: ‘Where do I go from here?’, before finding the simple solution on the street again: Dancing in the Streets.
Twenty-four years lie between A nous deux France (1970) and J’ai pas sommeil (1994) by the French director Claire Denis, and the two films have not much in common besides their approach in seeing migration not as a problem, but as a pre-condition. That is an exception not only in the France of the mid-1990s, but even today. Even if the cinema of Claire Denis is related to dance and the motion of walking, the concept of ‘strolling’ is the best description of the meta-level of her films. A strolling that in her latest film, White Material (2009), seems to be blocked by a character that insists on staying and uses all its physical energy to this end, against all reason. This character is played by Isabelle Huppert, and as such she overrides the character she plays. Her face and her movements escape the plot and at first remind us of other films. As a plantation owner, she may primarily evoke mild, filtered colonial fantasies of emigration. This cliché resonates in the images of White Material; Claire Denis plays with this and decides in favour of a clear, hard light. The insistence on the wish to stay is here paradoxically connected with a picture of walking in its vulnerability, its nakedness, its lack of compromise. Having to go on foot is shown as a loss and a deficit in a place where every metre is travelled by motorcycle, jeep or bus, speed gives a feeling of freedom and rescue by helicopter is even offered for the whites. Anyone moving about on foot has nothing, has lost everything or is a fighter, like the rebels who creep through the undergrowth.
In Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005), Khalo Matabane sets off himself with his video camera to understand the movements of those who have come from far away, perhaps in order to stay, in a country of immigration, namely South Africa. He addresses passers-by in the street, meets them in the park. The filmmaker begins a conversation that is both retrospective and forward-looking – not a discussion, no fors and against, but a conversation, presented as a walking motion.
de Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.
de Balzac, H. (1997) Theorie des Gehens, Lana-Wien-Zürich: Edition Howeg/edition per procura (Original: Théorie de la démarche, 1930).
Deleuze, G. (2001) The Movement Image, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original L’image mouvement, 1983).
Debord, G. (1958) ‘Théorie de la dérive’; Theory of Drifting
Benjamin, W. (1983) Das Passagen-Werk (2 volumes), Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp SV.
Johnson, D. (2011), Der Spiegel Online, 26.7.2011, Warum Afrika viel besser ist als sein Ruf
Deleuze wrote, ‘The sensory-motor action or situation has been replaced by the stroll, the voyage and the continual return journey. The voyage has found in America the formal and material conditions of a renewal. It takes place through internal or external necessity, through the need for flight. (...) It has become urban voyage, and has become detached from the active and affective structure which supported it, directed it, gave it even vague directions.’ (2001: 208)