Jean-Pierre facially appears like a young gentleman. But an interraction with him reveals a personality burning with vision for African emancipation. He shares his thought with intenerant film critic, Tunde Oladunjoye, at the just concluded 40th edition of the Carthage Film festival in Tunis, Tunisia.
Lets meet you please.
My name is Jean-Pierre Bekolo. I am a Camerounian filmmaker. I have my new film, Les Saignantes here at the festival, which I can say it means The bleeders, thought its not easy to translate. I did three films already Quartier Mozart (1992), Le Complot d'Aristote (1996) and the latest one. I also teach films in America and I am also the Secretary General of the Guild of African Filmakers in Europe. My attempt is to take into account the potentials of the medium and to use it to the best of my ability, to show African creativity. I think that is very important, not just the topic and the subject matter. And to also be able to communicate with the youths because I know that half of the African population is less than 15 years old. So, when we do this we should make sure that we are actually talking to the right audience. At the same time, film has that potentials of helping us to improve our own image. First, the way we see ourselves, and also the way others see us. Finally, I will say it also offers other perspectives on where I think Africa could go. Right now I am a little bit disappointed about two things. One, Africa is being framed, at least as far as film is concerned, between misery, poverty and terror. Thats how the films that are interesting to the West are being made; between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda.
But, most of these films talking about violence, misery, etc in Africa; are being produced and directed by African filmakers themselves.
I agree with you and I think we have gone backward to be honest with you, in my opinion. Beacuse, during independence and after colonialism, people were very aware of what needed to be done and where we wanted to go. Now, I think we live in a more opportunistic world. And what you could see happening and more people running Africa as war and corruption and all that is also among the people making films. I mean there is no doubt about it, and this is of serious concern. I would say its only personal agenda that drives them.
Well, the personal agenda has to do with funding; these are the films that get funded. So, where are we going to get funding for films that talk about African reality and not all these violence and backward stories?
Well, its true that the people giving money are the ones running the show and also making sure they give money and publicity to subject matter that brings Africa down and thats nothing new. Its been there for a long time and that was why our parents who fought against that knew it, and that was why they fought. If we think we can just jeopardise or throw away all that legacies in terms of trying to keep, as much as we can, our continent free at least in mind, then I think its going to be a big shame and waste. But I will also say those in Africa with power and money have a big responsibility and I think the fact that they are completely abandoning that field (film industry) is also a sort of crime, because human beings are not just living on food and all that but also what they have in mind. But now they have completely given up to the West our minds, and I think it should not be surprising that the children or whaever they have built will go away, because now, it is the West that is leading us and actually leading our youths and obviously, we will have results that are expected.
And films like that are the films that win awards
I completely agree with you, but I think its all about perspectives. We should actually seperate their perspectives from our perspectives. When somebody gives awards, he gives awards based on his own criterea. We should also create our own awards and base our awards on our own criterea. So, in that sense, I am very clear, we should not miss our perspetives because after all that, if I am an African I should always see somebody from the West as someone who came to my home, like an invader somehow. And he cant change that perspective, I would always remain the person that was at home when somebody came and I cant shift that, you know. We cant say now we are all the same thing. Even you will remeber this interview with that perspective and I will remeber it with that perspective. I could be a very good friend of yours but we will never miss our perspectives. We tend to forget that when we read critics or we see awards, they are pushing their own agenda. Well, their agenda is actually at work in Africa right now and we know what it is. So, I do think that consciousnessness needs to be always there. And I totally agree with you that we are ging backward and I am actually very worried about the future in that sense.
With this view of yours, you said you have done three films now, have you screened them in Africa and what have been the reaction or official perspective?
Well, let me just talk about my last film, Les Saignantes, it actually got censored in Cameroun...
Whats the story about?
It is the story of connection of young girls with people in power, I will say its about the body empowerment, body intergrity, corruption actually, which starts with the body. People in power and all that, sleeping with youg girls and the young girls are now trying to find a way out by being conscious of their power somehow. The government said early this year that the film was agaunst the regime and pornographic. Then I had to fight, because I felt that it was not sometning I could take. I want the people to see the film and also think that when things are happening we dont just go away and say ok and start crying. I worked with newspapers to make sure they talked about it. At the end, the minister of culture himself had to see the film. He watched the film and asked me to go back to the censorship committee where I had a long discussion with them while watching the film. So we end up finding a kind of agreement because it (the restriction) was already making a lot of noise in the country. So they released the film like that and put 13 and they put a warning like that at the begining; they didnt want the film to be seen as a Camerounian film. Anyway, people watched the film and it was very successful in Younde and Douala. Actually, people connected it with a lot of things that were happening in the country at the same time, you know these politicians connections with the girls, sexual misdeeds, and so on. For my first film, Quartier Mozart, I did that a long time ago, and brought it here (JCCarthage) in 1992, I was in Barcelonia two weeks ago and I saw this guy who was about 25 years old. He came to me and said he grew up watching the film on television and his parents didnt want thim and his siblings to watch it because they said there are certain words in it and they didnt want them to hear, so they say go to the bedroom and all that. It was quite moving to see this Camerounian kid in Barcelonia, it was very interesting for me that it was affecting the youth. Because my main point when I started making films was that I grew up in Cameroun and at the age of 20 years I did not see any film. So, I became worried that, how can a kid grow up and will not see any film at 20, that means something else is shaping his mind. Anyway, I was unlucky I did not make many films. The little ones I made I really want them to have impact at least in that little territory. I dint forsee travelling to many parts of the world and winning awards and being celebrated by, I dont even know who; becuase at the end of the day my own people remain my focus.
What is your challenge to one, African youth; two, African filmmakers; and three, to African governments?
I would tell African youth to take over. I study in America, the university is run mainly by students. Obviously you have faculty and staff, but 80 per cent of the positions are being held by the students between 18 and 20 years old. When you look at the US Army, I think about 80 per cent also of the army is in the average of 20 years old. So, I will ask why are African youth seen as just being useless while we have all these things to be done? I remember I met President Kagharmi of Rwanda and I ask if Africa should not be a big kindergarthen somehow with half of the population under 15 years old. So, youth should be at the heart of the dirve. Africa should be big in anything that regards the youth because that is half of the poulation. So for me thats what I think. Regarding filmmakers, I would say we should redefine Aristotoles plot who said a good story should inspire pity and fear. I feel thats what African filmmakers are doing. There stories inspire pity and fear. Africa itself is now inspiring pity and fear. That is why I said it was a plot, a plot against Africa somehow; telling people that is the kind of films they should be making. But the good story is that Aristole wrote another book and that was about comedy. And the church took it away and that book is not out till now. Anyway, following that patern, it means African filmmakers should define what is cinema for Africa. We need to define this medium. A lot of people did it, the French did it, the Americans did it, and the way the French did it was not the way Americans did it. The Russian did it, so we should redefine what is cinema for us...
And I think the Arabs are doing it at the moment...
Absolutely, and I think its a very powerful thing, so we should redefine it; is it something we are going to sell our souls with it or is it something we will use to empower our people and get this continent to somewhere? What are we doing with it. We are free to define it.
And the last challenge you were asking on the government
In my new film, the last sentence is: "kids cant grow up like there are no parents and parents cant grow up like there are no kids". Thats my feeling the way the countires are being run. Obviously if the goverments are like parents, they behave as if they are for their own kids, they keep the positions for their own kids and not for the kids of others. So, I would say that Africa can really kick-off. I can say I met very very few people in government that are really really concerned about our interest. For me thats a critical thing. I think if any action being made is in the interest of our people, I really do think that things are going to work very well. That I think is really key for the governments.
How old are you?
I will be 40 this year.
You have three films?
Yes, actually I did my first film when I was 25, thats why I am like an old person now.
You are married?
Not really, but I have two children.
Talking to you, you sound like someone who is very passionate about Africa but disappointed
Emm, it is true that... emm I can call it active pessimism, ...em that is what actually push me to make films, when I feel I cant do anything, I just feel Okay, I will make films. So, I am trying to manage my disappointment in a positive way at least.
Whats your background?
Actually, I studied Physics at the University of Yaounde and I went to work as an editor at the television in Younde because we didnt have televison until 1985, so I was working there while I was still studying. After, I went to Paris to study editing and then I did my first film there actually.
By Tunde Oladunjoye in Tunis, Tunisia