The NI Interview
David Katz talks with one of a new breed of crusading African film-makers.
Jean-Marie Teno is a young, award-winning film-maker from Cameroon who refuses to be stifled by censorship. A short, stocky man with an amiable air, Teno speaks with a quiet authority that underlines the conviction of his political beliefs. And he’s not one to keep his opinions to himself.
‘In my country if a journalist writes an article that is critical of the Government it can mean six months in prison. I thought that being a film-maker and dealing in images I could get around that.’
It hasn’t proved that easy. Critics praised his hard-hitting documentary, Afrique Je Te Plumerai, which looked at the aftermath of French colonialism in Cameroon. But back home it was heavily censored.
‘The Director of Television in Cameroon said that none of my documentaries would be seen on television,’ says Teno with barely veiled annoyance. ‘So I decided to change direction. I decided to make feature films instead and have them shown in the cinema.’
Teno has lived in France since 1978 and made his first feature in 1984. ‘Cameroon and France have signed an agreement that allows equal access for each other’s films. In effect my film is a French film and they’re now prohibited from censoring any French film in Cameroon.’
Clando was recently screened to critical acclaim at the London Film Festival. The film follows the life of a computer operator, Subgui Anatole, who is imprisoned and tortured before fleeing to Germany. It details the everyday threat of violence facing those who dare voice dissent in Cameroon and later shows the difficulties of African immigrants forced into exile in the West.
Parisian life has clearly added to Teno’s cosmopolitan sensibilities, yet he has remained in touch with African life and politics despite his years abroad. This sense of being between two worlds is something the film also tries to portray. ‘When my country was fighting for independence there was a lot of ambivalence. Many people were wary because they felt they were not ready. Most of those fighting were either killed or exiled. And the rest weren’t able to run the country properly; there were European advisors everywhere.’
That colonial legacy, Teno believes, still influences African politicians. ‘The leaders in Cameroon and most parts of Africa are not in power to represent the people, they’re just pleasing the ex-colonial masters... In films like Clando I am trying to make people aware of the pressures that are shaping their lives. Because when they’ve got pressure coming from every side they don’t even see what the problems are.’
The film’s title comes from a term used to describe clandestine activity. We first encounter Anatole as a ‘clando’ because he drives an unlicensed taxi in Douala; later he is also a ‘clando’ when he sympathizes with an opposition group. And still later he becomes another kind of ‘clando’ as an illegal immigrant in Germany.
Anatole’s troubles begin when he agrees to print anti-government leaflets for his revolutionary colleagues. He is imprisoned and tortured but treated with an odd kind of ambivalence by his captors.
Teno says such treatment is symptomatic of the way the lure of democracy has created fierce divisions in Cameroon, something he confronted repeatedly while shooting the film.
A central thread in Clando is the way that state-controlled violence has become an accepted feature of daily life, perhaps the most visible contradiction posed by Cameroon’s present state of quasi-democracy.
‘When people want to negotiate and those in power refuse, the response is usually violent. In the street the police shoot with real bullets when people are demonstrating. And Cameroon is supposed to be a democratic country.’
Some critics worry that his films may encourage a violent response to state repression. For his part the testy film-maker is convinced that he can only ‘expose the problems’ and that the people themselves will decide their own course of action. ‘Everyone has to decide whether they are ready to take some risks so that things change. Of course they can wait until things change by themselves. But is that likely?’
By basing the second half of the film in Germany Teno says he hopes to broaden the focus for audiences outside Africa. ‘I hope it’s going to cause people to see that immigrants often flee because conditions are so unbearable in their own country. Then people in the West might just pressure their governments to stop supporting all those dictators around the world.’
Besides, he says, ‘if life was great in my country, no-one would want to leave to come to Europe.’ When meeting Teno face to face, the man’s charisma and humour are immediately apparent. But like the open-ended nature of many of his films, Teno’s speech is marked by a subtle restraint.
He points out that his main concern is to force people to think about how to achieve positive change. But what riles him most are the stagnation and inertia that rule post-colonial Cameroon. ‘Politics is our life,’ he stresses. ‘We are not sheep, we are people. Yet we are living in a country where we don’t have the right to talk about what is happening around us. That’s why I make films – to prove I’m not a sheep and to involve people in their own destiny.’