Finding one´s own language for one´s own history
Jean-Marie Teno was born in the Cameroon in 1954 and has lived in Paris since 1977. He belongs to the generation of ´young´ African filmmakers of the 90s. With committed short, documentary and feature films, he wants to open the eyes of Africans and Europeans to colonialism, neo-colonialism, migration, dictatorship and the abuse of power in Africa.
´Europeans should know more about Africa,´ says Jean-Marie Teno, now living in Paris. In his short, documentary and feature films, he has shed much light on the dark spot ´Africa´ in the eyes of Europeans. In whatever medium he works, Teno is a sharp critic of authoritarian regimes like those which he has experienced in the Cameroon and other African states. His works also focus on the colonial past and current neo-colonial conditions, even in his own métier.
Just as Africa´s political spectrum is still determined mainly by the former colonial powers, so its film-production is financed mainly by the earlier metropolises and the European union. ´Imagine a human being who fumbles around in a huge dustbin, has his head in the clouds and has no control over his movements. Such a being would be known as chaos.´
In his film ´La tête dans les nuages´ (´Head in the Clouds´) from 1994, Jean-Marie Teno criticises the ills of the modern world and the regression of African societies. This short documentary shows the capital of the Cameroon, Yaondé, but might equally show other African cities: heaps of rubbish lie at the edge of streets, academics are out of work, officials unpaid, corruption is the norm, and misery everywhere. For Jean-Marie Teno ´colonisation, civilisation, independence, then humanitarian talk are merely excuses and theatrical gestures to ensure that Africa remains the place which foreign powers can exploit with a good conscience.´
The documentation ´L´Afrique, je te plumerais´ (´Africa, I´m going to fleece you´) starts with the publication of a open letter to the Cameroon´s president Biya in 1990. Its call for a national conference led to the immediate arrest of the author. The film goes on to consider the history of the Cameroon, leading from the colonial period, which began with the first German mission and schools, went on with French occupation after the first world war, and led to political repression throughout the region in the post-colonial period. Teno´s voice off-screen explains his intention: ´I sought the relationship of cause and effect between the unbearable past, with its colonial violence, and the present. I sought the reason why a land with well-structured traditional societies changed into an incompetent state.´
´L´Afrique, je te plumerais´ is about ´The Power of Words´, as the German title reveals. Jean-Marie Teno resorts to various conventions, mingles elements of satire, comedy and music with simple didactics and a neo-realistic camera. Critically he uses colonial propaganda-films against themselves. By artfully combining contemporary pictures and fiction, as also by using important period-documents and careful reconstruction, he tries to regain the right of Africans to express themselves. It is crucial in this respect to become aware of one´s own history.
Hence Teno recalls Sultan Njoye, who in the course of twelve years developed an alphabet of 80 symbols and then in 1913, while the Cameroon was still a German colony, opened a printing-works of his own. In an era of the spoken word he wanted to write in Bamun, the language of the kingdom. He promised his vassals: ´I´m going to give you a book which will speak without sound.´ For the sake of teaching his language, he set up schools; and he revolutionised farming by introducing European plants formerly unknown in Africa. He began by creating a civil service with a register of births and deaths and then founded a religion.
At first Teno had wished to make a film about publishing in the Cameroon, but having experienced the brutal repression of political demonstrations in his homeland, he decided to investigate ´language as a path to freedom or enslavement´, since ´confiscating a language, by reducing it to a code available to only a minority, makes it easier to silence and exploit people.´
In his only feature-film ´Clando´ (1996), Jean-Marie Teno takes up the theme of repression and the relationship between the ´third´ and the ´first´ world from the point of view of an illegal taxi-driver in Douala. The protagonist Sobgui is imprisoned and tortured for having helped a student protester, so then tries his luck in Germany. In Cologne he falls in love with Irene, who helps political refugees, but nonetheless he is unable to forget the torture and horror of jail and starts to think of returning to the Cameroon. By means of this charachter, Jean-Marie Teno focuses on migration and political violence and questions political commitment and its methods: Is it legitimate to counter the violence of power with violence of a different kind?
With ´Clando´, Teno wants to reach a larger public in Europe. ´The film should make it clear that folk often emigrate due to unbearable conditions in their homelands. Voters in the west should persuade their governments to give dictators no further support.´
But naturally this film is also directed towards his own countrymen, whom Teno wants to make think about opportunities for positive change. He is annoyed about stagnation in the post-colonial Cameroon: ´Politics is our life,´ he stresses. ´We are not sheep but humans. Nonetheless we live in a land where we are forbidden to talk about what is happening around us. Hence I make films, to show that I am no sheep and to encourage my countrymen to think about their own future.´ The filmmaker, though, does not restrict himself to big policy-making.
In his video-documentary ´Chef!´ (1999) Teno looks into micro-politics, which play more than a casual role in his homeland. In so doing, he scorns African respect for authority and pleads effectively for equal rights and education. In every village the camera finds situations in which human rights are overruled by the will of a chief.
A young man is accused of having stolen hens. Has he perhaps stolen ducks too? A lynch-situation evolves, and though the hen-thief escapes with his life, this may be due only to presence of the camera. In such scenes Tena leads viewers to reflect on inequality in the Cameroon. Women given in marriage listen to an official declaring them to be their husbands´ subordinates. As regards the patriarchy, Teno concedes that all men are chiefs at home, but not all chiefs are equal in the Cameroon, as an interview with Pius Njawé, the main editor of the newspaper ´Messager´ shows. Njawé was flung into jail for having dared publish an item of information unacceptable to the head of state, Biya. In jail he faced tubercolosis, rats, corruption, ailments in general and death. Teno leaves it to the Cameroon´s writer Mongo Beti to denounce ´the right to non-imprisonment of all dictators´.
Teno´s judgement is less bitter and harsh in his new film ´Vacances au pays´ (´Holidays in the homeland´). Here he goes once more on a trip which he went on in his summer holidays as a youth. It leads him from the city Jaunde to Bandjoun, to the village of his parents and forefathers. This film reflects in the form of a diary on the urge towards modernisation and the dubious model of development behind it. With a sharp tongue, irony and a certain sadness, Teno examines the concept of development which in Africa is thought of as a thrust towards ´tropical modernity´. Everything from Europe or America is taken to be modern, and everything African is taken to be archaic and worthless. Not without bitterness does he show Coca-Cola in the most remote villages, even where water is still drawn from a well, and even where it takes up to ten years for a single ferry-rope to be mended, though the welfare of a whole region depends on it.
His old grammar-school is falling to pieces, and his former borough is now a dump for used cars. Further westward, in his grandparents´ village, a big youth-congress is still held, but instead of organising communal tasks, the participants come only for a booze. The potentially modern customs which used to be part of African tradition, like communal discussion and work, have slipped into abeyance. The congress was earlier organised by villagers to keep in touch with young folk moving off into the townships but is now a fair.
In ´Chef!´ Teno was concerned with day-to-day politics, and in ´Vacances au pays´ (2000) he chose to criticise modernity in general. ´To me, modernity means an effort to lessen inequality and to move away from a past of slavery and colonisation, till no one on earth is in need.´
Jean-Marie Teno was born on 14th May, 1954, in Famleng in the Cameroon and has been living since 1977 in France, where he studied audio-visual communication in Valenciennes. Since 1985 he has been working as a film critic for ´Buana Magazine´ and as a television editor. For his second short film ´Hommage´ (1987) he won the short-film award of the ´Festival Vues d´Afriques´ in Montréal. His first and only full-length feature film ´Clando´ was nominated in the same year for the category ´best film´ at the international festival of French-speaking films in Namur. Teno lives in Paris and travels regularly to the Cameroon, which he still views as his homeland.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(23 October 93 - 15 December 02)