Politics & African Film: New Book by Anne Mungai

POLITICAL COMMUNICATION IN FILM By Anne Mungai Lambert Academic Publishing 2012 Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru Anne Mungai is best known for being an award-winning filmmaker and trailblazer who made some of the first films about the plight of the African girl child (Saikati I and II) and the power young women have to defy traditions and take control of their lives. Her revealing and well-researched docu-drama about Nairobi street children, called Usilie mtoto wa Africa also won her international accolades and inspired her to found Shangilia mtoto wa Africa, which was not simply a street children’s home. Her idea was to offer chokora a channel for sharing their creative talents through music, dance and drama, skills she had seen them perform every day in the city streets. The former lecturer at KIMC who currently teaches at Kenyatta University has continued making films, although they have been more informational since she went to work for the Ministry of Information and Communication. But it wasn’t until her recent book launch at the British Council September 5th that we discovered Mungai is also a scholar whose text Political Communication in Film examines The Impact of political communication and films and how it shapes public opinion. Based on the research she did for her master’s degree at Cardiff University in Wales, Mungai’s book not only appraises the power and impact of film on public opinion, both regionally and globally. It is also grounded in the notion “that developing countries are responsible for improving their image on the global communication scene.” Deeply cognizant of the fact that the Western film lens has consistently projected a demeaning view of Africa and Africans, Mungai examines a range of black images, including those that reinforce the negative stereotypes and belong to what she calls “the politics of misrepresentation of African people by the West.” But she wastes no time in clarifying her appreciation for fellow “filmmakers from the continent [who] make films from their own perspectives.” For her, African filmmakers telling “their own stories” are implicitly making political statements because as the African film scholar Diawara put it, they are at “less risk of misinterpreting African cultures.” For her, filmmakers from the region are also constructing “political communication” because their films implicitly challenge the negative stereotypes and defy the dehumanizing beliefs about Africa as a ‘dark continent’ filled of witchcraft, ignorance, conflict and poverty. To illustrate her point, she compares two feature films, one which she feels reflects the prevalent Western perspective of Africa which hasn’t changed much since the days of Tarzan, while the other is by an African filmmaker (Mungai herself) who claims that she, like her “fellow filmmakers [doesn’t] just make films to entertain, but also to raise awareness among the public in a positive manner.” Both films are award-winning and both constitute ‘political communication’ by making subtle political statements about the values and the worldviews of the respective filmmakers. The Constant Gardener earned the leading actress Rachel Weisz an Academy Award while Saikati earned Mungai international recognition, including accolades from UNICEF. Because Mungai conducted her research as a social scientist, she managed to interview a wide array of film practitioners and scholars from all over the world, including fellow Africans who shared her view that The Constant Gardener merely used Kenya and the Kibera slum as ‘backdrops’ to tell their story about a white woman who came to the continent as a “savior” and died a martyr in the process. Reinforcing the stereotypes that Africa is a ‘dark’ and dangerous place to go, TCG seemed to be an expose about the drug cartels’ evil practice of using ‘naive’ Africans to test their drugs. But to Mungai, it projected the same old clichés of Africans as either victims or vagrants begging the white man/woman for money or means to escape the misery implicitly African. In contrast, Mungai made Saikati with the awareness that she wanted to present an empowering image of the African woman, unlike “most western films [that] portray African women as … victims.” Saikati is about a young woman who defies the patriarchal traditions and sets out to take control of her life. However, once she reaches the big city, she finds there are so many challenges and so few options open to young single women, she chooses to return to her rural life rather than lose her self-respect to the economic exigencies of urban life, like prostitution. Mungai’s point is that both films convey forms of political communication, one projective a positive, the other a negative image of Africa and Africans. In summary, she believes all African filmmakers have a responsibility to create cinema with that consciousness of the immense power that film has to communicate accurate images of Africa.

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