Magical Realism in African Cinema

The Africa in Motion 2020 festival wrapped up with the sumptuous film Air Conditioner, the debut feature by Fradique which followed security guard Matacedo, who travels across the dreamscape of Lunada in search of a remedy for the air conditioners that mysteriously fall from the sky. The audiences are invited to travel with the protagonist as he meets a host of colourful characters along the way. Poetic and languorous, the Angolan capital city is a character in and of itself, transforming from gentrified wonderland to abject poverty in the blink of an eye. Fradique’s lavish score aids the mystical sensibility of this film, with the pacing and the jazz score underpinning the stark inequalities between social classes in Angola. This social conundrum is also highlighted  by the immense beauty amid the chaos. 

Air Conditioner

This led me to look at how magical realism is used in contemporary African films to discuss the intersections of tradition, modernity and spirituality in modern Africa today.

This is distinct from fantastical supernatural genres of film-making that has been seen widely in exploitation Nollywood and Gollywood films of the late nineties and early noughties, such as Sakobi: the Snake Girl, in which ritual and spirituality are tools merely to titulate and entertain with no commentary about the function of magic within these societies. The films discussed all employ a magical realist lens to engage in wider conversations about the dialectical relationship between history and the future in African societies. 

Magical realism is a literary genre that originated in Latin America. A key element of this genre is that it grounds supernatural or magical elements in everyday life. Magical realism, more aptly described as spiritual realism in regards to African fiction, has long been a feature of African literature, Wole Soyinka often employs used magical realism in his work, by blending African folklore and mythology to provide a critique on how this divide concerns the modern African. Magical realism has always been a tool which expands the African allegories of spiritual journeys.

This has been expanded to film, and has been present in African cinema from its very inception, an early proponent of magical realism in African cinema  was the Sengelese legend Djibril Diop Mambéty, who employed fantastical elements within the fabric of his storytelling. His magnum opus, Touki Bouki, captures the enchantment of reckless youth. This is conveyed in the hybridity of two young renegades Mory and Anta, who carry out a series of heists in the hope of fleeing to France. The film pays homage to the surreal and mystical landscapes of Dakar and fuses it with a distinctly French New Wave flair. It is an exploration into modernity and tradition that lapses into magical realist vignettes which capture the strangeness of post-colonial hybridity. 

Touki Bouki

Djibril Diop Mambéty delves further into magical realist territory in his next film, Hyenas, released in 1992. Loosely based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit,  in which an old lady returns to a village that exiled her as a child. Similarly to Touki Bouki, it is concerned with the trappings of neocolonialism and consumerism. Senegal in Hyenas, however, is a heightened reality, a melting pot of other African nations, Japan, and Europe which  creates a surreal hybridised nation, and serves as a framework to interrogate both the modernity and hybridity of post-colonial citizens. 

Likewise in Blitz Bazawule’s 2018 feature The Burial of Kojo engages in discussions around politics, tradition and spirituality through encounters with the ancestral plane, a spiritual world that is seen in African literature and folklore from Helen Oyemeymi’s Eerie Bush in the novel The Icarus Girl to the afrofuturistic rendering in Black Panther, it is a theoretical framework that suggests that poverty and corruptions are not just economic concerns, but spiritual ones. 

The film tells the story of Kojo, a man left to die by his brother, and it follows his daughter Esi, who embarks on a journey to the spiritual realm to save him. Like Air Conditioner, Burial’s depiction of Ghana has a fluid feel to it, we see the landscapes melt from urban to rural, further highlighting the fluidity of life and death, history and future. In this way, magical realism serves to reinforce the damage and trauma that corruption and poverty has done to the soul of Ghana, and indeed the continent at large. 

The Burial of Kojo

Ancestors also feature in Abba Makama’s joyous feature, The Lost Okoroshi, a wacky tragi-comedy that discusses the tensions between traditional and contemporary cultures in Nigeria. The audience follows Raymond, a hapless man who is stuck in an unfulfilling role as a security guard in Lagos, and who dreams of living in the country. He is plagued by dreams where he is being chased by the Igbo Spirit Okoroshi, before being transformed into one himself. We follow his attempt to continue his everyday life as the Okoroshi, before realising that his path lay elsewhere. Through comedy and zany humour, the film touches on the same conflicts that the protagonists of Air Conditioner, and The Burial of Kojo are afflicted by, through his journey through masquerade, Raymond has to reconcile retaining his ancestral and traditional identity while moving forward in modern Lagos. 

Possession also comes into play in Mati Diop’s 2019 feature Atlantics, in which the supernatural aids the practical. The young women of a community in Dakar are beholden to the spirits of their brothers and lovers who have perished at sea. They return nightly, to seek restitution from the corrupt overlords that refused paying the young men for months of work, and forced them to migrate to Europe in order to provide for their families. The films heroine, Ada, is haunted by the loss of her young lover Sulieman, one of the labourers that is a casualty of the sea, and she eschews the life that is laid out for her by her parents, a marriage to a young, wealthy man, who resides in the modernised and westernised area of Dakar. Ada is wholly unimpressed by what she sees to be a vacuous life, and this foresight that enables her to experience closure and peace, when she is reunited mystically with Suliman for one last night. Ada is portrayed as a young woman who refuses to be labelled or pigeonholed, and this is articulated through the blurred lines between the living and the dead. The contrast of the ultra fashionable uptown Daker that cannot contend with the power and connectivity of the avenging spirits,  etech a visceral portant of possibility in the mind of the observer. 

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story – Image Courtesy of Netflix

This is a sensibility that runs through these films, often the protagonists are trapped between two worlds, whether it be metaphysical or economically. These films show nations that are not willing to abandon the wealth of wisdom retained and handed down by ancestors. Magical realism provides a lens in which these filmmakers show the beauty and complexity of African tradition and the fluidity of each nation, away from the Eurocentric gaze that Africa has often been a victim in Western films. 

Sula Douglas Folkes

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