ANIMATE ASSEMBLY 6: TWINE, WIRE, DUST (MOUSTAPHA ALASSANE)

Twine, wire, dust: Moustapha Alassane

Nikolaus Perneczky

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The first native director to emerge from post-independence Niger – one of the very first sub-Saharan Africans to realise their own films – was animation pioneer Moustapha Alassane, who died in March 2015.[1] His 1962 short Aouré, a documentary fiction that captures the meet cute and ensuing courtship of two youth on the banks of the Niger River in a mode veering between affection and observation, has been touted as the “first authentic work of a Nigerien (conceived, performed, shot, edited and dubbed exclusively by Nigeriens)”.[2] It predates by one year both Ousmane Sembène’s Borom Sarret – by most accounts the first fiction film ever to be realised by an African director on sub-Saharan soil – and Momar Thiam’s Sarzan (based on Birago Diop’s eponymous short story), and coincides with Blaise Senghor’s documentary short Grand Magal à Touba – the three Senegalese midwives[3] to the birth of sub-Saharan African cinema.[4]

To accomplish this feat, Alassane had to economise: Only three of the scarcely thirty metres of 16mm film stock available to him at the time wound up on the editing floor. To make do with whatever resources he could muster, animating new aesthetic, technical and social assemblages in the process: such was this self-taught bricoleur’s cinematic po(i)etics. Alasane was intimately acquainted with his tools, many of which he had designed, sourced and constructed himself, and which he kept repairing and caring for throughout his long but variously interrupted career. Before he turned to filmmaking, he had received training as a mechanic. Senegalese film critic and maker Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, in his pioneering study of the “origins of African cinema”, calls him “the African Meliès”.[5] This is no exaggeration: An innovator as much as a technician, Alassane, albeit belatedly, ranks among the original inventors of cinema.[6]

Moustapha Alassane was born in 1942, in N’Jougou, Benin.[7] In 1953, his father, who was a Yoruba businessman, moved the family to French Niger.[8] As early as in primary school, Alassane began experimenting with different methods for projecting moving images, entertaining friends and relatives with a form of shadow theatre made from drawings on the translucent wrappings of cigarette packages.[9] He would place the cigarette wrappings inside a wooden box covered in black paint, in front of a small rectangular cutout illuminated from within by dint of a petroleum storm lamp borrowed from his father. The price of entry: 50 centimes CFA.[10] Alassane’s cinema is an art of animation and projection, of movement and illumination. His fascination with these broad operations, dating back all the way to his childhood, led him to become the first African ever to make an animated film, the 1965 La Mort de Gandji. Alassane’s films share a satirical bent, yet in each of them satire resonates in a different key, from playful to analytic to desperate. Eclectic in their choice of subject matter, as Vieyra points out, his parabolic tales deploy both contemporary and historical settings, embrace realist as well as mythic modes of representation, and are always, even at their most irreverent, at the service of moral edification. In the words of the first historian of African cinema, “[Alassane] tells stories that yield a moral for the purposes of civic education”.[11]

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Throughout his life, Alassane experimented with a variety of animation procedures, from shadow theatre to stop-motion animation to CGI (though regrettably no finished computer-generated works remain), from drawings to puppets to live-action – indication that his interest lay not in a specific medium or technology but in the overriding principle of animation. His promiscuous, intermedia practice encompasses not only the making of moving images but also, crucially, their sharing and showing. It connects the spheres of production, distribution and exhibition by a circular rather than a straight line; the need for the continual re-production of the means of subsistence cuts into and across their often difficult articulation. In all of its various registers, Alassane’s practice betrays a remarkable porosity towards its political, infrastructural and natural environments, open, even vulnerable to the world in ways that blur the boundaries between the drawn and the photographic. Overlooking his multifaceted oeuvre, one may begin to appreciate how in Alassane’s unique conception the categories of animation and live action film bleed into each other, and that his entire practice is a continual (re-)mediation of those animating forces most broadly conceived, which put people and objects into motion; a practice that unfolds amidst and against these moving forces while adding its own momentum to the equation.

In the early 1960s – Alassane was hardly in his twenties – he met the French engineer-turned-ethnographer Jean Rouch and through him became involved with the Institut fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) in Niamey, which Rouch, hitherto employed by the Paris-based Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), had been appointed to direct immediately after Niger’s accession to formal independence. While working on Rouch’s crew – as assistant director for Le mil (1964) for instance[12] – Alassane gleaned the basics of his craft. His first narrative shorts after Aouré, such as La Bague du roi Koda (1962) or Conteur albarca AKA Deela (1969), were among the earliest attempts to extend oral storytelling traditions practiced among tribal communities (here: of the Zarma and Hausa peoples respectively) to the medium of film. Conteur albarca rehearses this remediation of an older cultural technique by another, more recent one by alternating between close-ups of the griot (historian, praise singer and storyteller all rolled into one) and superimpositions of the story being told, about a beautiful peasant woman who is taken in by a prince to become his third wife only to betray his trust in the end. In the course of this to-and-fro movement, from the griot to the narrative universe he elaborates, the world-making technology of cinema soon gains ground, asserting its magical powers of self-propulsion and emancipating itself from the need for a localised narrative agent, yet the ties that bind the image to the griot’s mouth and voice are never completely severed.

La Bague du roi Koda tells the story of a hapless fisherman whose name, Loi de Dieu (Law of God)[13] arouses the king’s hubris. The king decides to play a cruel game with the poor fisherman: He gives him a ring off his hand for safekeeping, declaring that he will want it returned in a year’s time; if Loi de Dieu should fail to return the ring, he will lose his life. The king proceeds to coerce the fisherman’s wife into secretly returning the ring and then plunges it into the deepest depths of the river. When it transpires that the ring has gone missing from its hiding place, Loi de Dieu, fearing for his life, is thrown into turmoil. Through sheer luck – or the purloined object’s own magical agency of movement – the ring finds its way back to its anguished guardian, mere hours short of the moment of truth. While gutting a fish he had caught earlier on that fateful day, the fisherman recovers the ring and delivers it to the stunned king, who promptly hands over his kingdom. Some time after independence, the IFAN was subsumed by the University of Niamey and renamed Institut des recherches en sciences humaines (IRSH). Considering film instrumental to research, Rouch instituted a “section cinéma” at IRSH and put Alassane in charge, who was to head the department, financed in great part by “la coopération française”, for the following fifteen years. In Rouch’s conception of “la coopération”, its main aim was to “demystify technology”.[14] His self-professed mission at IRSH was to teach that technology may be “mastered”[15] – if only the people are given the means to make use of it.[16] Alassane, for his part, nowhere aspired to mastery. Under his direction, the “section cinéma” at IRSH helped foster a first wave of Nigerien post-independence filmmakers. With little equipment (two Éclairs Coutant)[17] and scant film stock at its disposal, the department hatched such seminal figures as Oumarou Ganda, Maïga Djingarey, Mariama Hima and Inoussa Ousseini Sountalma.

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It was Québecois actor and filmmaker Claude Jutra who, impressed with Alassane’s inventiveness, helped him obtain a bursary to work as an intern at the Office national du Film in Montreal, where Norman McLaren taught animation at the time. In the course of the nine months that Alassane spent there in 1965, he realised his first animation film, La Mort de Gandji – the first of its kind ever to be made by an African filmmaker. Set at the court of the king of toads, swarming with sycophantic courtiers, La Mort de Gandji inaugurates a narrative personnel and universe that would accompany Alassane for years to come. His second animated film, Bon voyage, Sim (1966), made the following year in a dingy hotel room in Pigalle,[18] recasts the toad monarchy as a newly minted toad republic, and the toad king as its president, who goes by the name of Sim. This animated short dissects the heavily mediated event of the pan-African state visit in order to poke serious fun at the post-independence political establishment – here rendered as a cabal of pompous amphibians – and its ritualised mise-en-scène; a satirical indictment not only of the state apparatus itself but also and especially of its capacity, in collusion with state-funded cinema and television, to project moving images of sovereign authority.

Epitomising the growing geopolitical ambitions of African nations, the state visit is an audiovisual genre that Alassane and his contemporaries would have been well-acquainted with. On newsreels produced by film and television crews, such as Voyage officiel du président Maga au Gabon (1972) by Beninois filmmaker Pascal Abikanlou, it was one of the most-documented political events in post-independence West Africa. Abiding by a strict protocol, the state visit dramatised the new rulers as sovereign agents on a mobile stage: an immediately recognisable trope in the service of representing emerging post-colonial polities for themselves and, at one and the same time, in relation to others, usually in a celebratory or even propagandistic mode. Critics of African cinema at the time showed great concern over the preponderance of this type of official image production – what Kodjo calls “un cinéma de visites de chefs d’Etats” (i.e. state visit cinema)[19] – to the detriment of other forms of filmmaking. Alassane was not alone in mounting a critique of state visit cinema; his compatriot and IRSH fellow Inoussa Ousseini Sountalma devoted an ethnographic short, Wasan Kara (1980), to the parodistic re-enactment, including self-made uniforms and a faux car cavalcade, of the Nigerian president’s visit to Niger as part of an annual harvest celebration: a subversive popular appropriation of statist ritual entertainment.

Animation technique in Bon voyage, Sim is economic and minimal; the figures, constituted from squiggly line drawings, appear to be gliding across the empty white backdrop, while their pinched, squeaky utterances are just pitched-up voice samples by Alassane. The usually invisible labour of repetition that in animation film grounds every stable object is rendered visible in the slight displacements from one frame to the other. Repetition, in other words, becomes non-identical: There is no stable foil against which the narrative (its enabling procedure) may unfold. More explicitly than the sly Wasan Kara, Bon voyage, Sim explores the complicity of film and television in animating the ruling elites’ audiovisual hegemony. In only a few minutes of runtime and by means of a few simple strokes, Alassane evokes a whole range of post-independence milieus and mediations. The president of the unnamed toad republic is first glimpsed sat behind his office desk, when a mailman conveys the good news: Sim has been invited on an official visit to a neighbouring toad nation. His drawn-out journey catalogues the workings of transport logistics – the concerted movement of people and objects through space – along a teleological trajectory of progressive technological development: from the plodding mailman’s old-fashioned bike to the more comfortable car-ride delivering president Sim to the airport and on to the Air Afrique carrier jet that whisks him up and away across the border.

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At the other end of his journey, ceremonial exigencies take over, which are in turn mediated by a host of cameras that eagerly follow the event: yet another technology of connection and displacement across the vast and, following a common trope of the nation-building imaginary, relatively disconnected African land mass. Cinema had a crucial role to play in the logistical project of bringing closer to each other the new nations’ constituent peoples yet at the same time served to legitimise the monopolisation of this capacity in the hands of the state.[20] The battalion giving a goose-step demonstration in honour of state guest Sim is soon revealed not to be moving at all, the soldiers’ feet treading on a giant rotating barrel hand-cranked by another, particularly unhappy-looking denizen of toad country. The technical analogy between the rotary mechanism of the barrel and that which propels the film strip through a camera or projector is telling: the marching soldiers are being animated for the gaze of national television.

After a tour of important national infrastructures, culminating in the inauguration of Université Sim (a faceless modernist cubicle among many), a declaration of cooperation is signed – this is exactly how Beninese president Maga’s state visit to Gabon unfolds in Abikanlou’s previously mentioned reportage. The extant version of Bon voyage, Sim ends with the titular hero boarding a plane back to his native country, though not before returning the favour and extending an invitation to his hosts. The original denouement, which saw Sim ousted from power upon his return by a coup d’état and thrown into a puddle of water where he rejoins his conspecifics, has been cut by Alassane himself, apparently in anticipation of state censorship. In public conversation, Alassane was guarded about this issue. Thus notes a 1971 testimony: “[W]hen questioned as to the reaction of his government to the implicit criticism in the short, Mr. Alassane began by replying that those government officials who had seen it were generally favourable, if not enthusiastic about it. He felt that the film’s animated form made its message more palatable to the officials, and he conversely seemed to imply that had the form been more realistic, government censure would have been expected.” When pressed to clarify his position, “Mr. Alassane progressively stressed the positive aspects of state visits, e.g. good will, morale of the people, etc., and seemed to prefer that his film be accepted simply as a casual satirical experiment in the use of animated form, rather than the semi-revolutionary critique others might have wished it to be.”[21]

The iconicity of air travel is again exploited in the opening shot of Alassane’s following film, the Western paraphrase Le Retour d’un aventurier (1966). A plane adorned with the galvanising Air Afrique logo touches down on the tarmac and out steps a young man – one of many returnees in early African cinema, except that he is coming back from a trip to the US, not Europe – greeted by his eagerly awaiting friends.[22] In his suitcase the young man is carrying the props required for staging a Western. Like a film director or producer arriving from some faraway land of adventure, he is next seen handing out colts and Stetson hats to the village youth. Playfully at first, they start to train both their guns and the gestures and demeanours – the cowboy habitus – that are their necessary complement. What begins as merry posing soon spirals out of control. Throughout the ensuing mayhem, however, strong self-reflexive overtones prevail: There can be no doubt that the shoot-out, provoked by internal discord after the gang clashes with the village elders, is at one and the same time a film shoot.[23]

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The stated goal of Le Retour was to “record the comportment of the era”.[24] The way the village youths’ bodies and minds are moved by the Western genre, its attendant gestures and behaviours, too, could be considered an instance of animation. Frantz Fanon’s commentary on movement and its restriction/confinement based on his work as a psychiatrist in the town of Blida, Algeria, during the War of Independence, whereby social conflict prevented from being acted out is internalised as muscle tension, leading to a variegated symptomatology from spasms to neurotic inhibitions,[25] is a suggestive rendering of colonial animation. The young men (and woman) in Le Retour, in contrast, move fluidly through the post-colonial environment. Unlike the colonial policies of ghettoisation and containment that constitute the background of Fanon’s account, the neo-colonial forces that act on Alassane’s adventurers are not only – not immediately – restrictive. Instead, they are productive of new behaviours at odds with traditional village life and its specific communal ethics. Alassane understands his film as an ethnography of the impact of the “Western”, that is, both the film genre and the political entity. But he conceives of this impact not as something that is simply suffered, passively received. Watching Western cinema remains an active experience, it involves the audience, their bodies, so that in a certain sense, much like the adventurers, they are making their own Westerns – making Westerns their own. It is Alassane’s great achievement to portray this ambivalent process of motile appropriation without moralising, in an attitude of sympathetic concern, from which emerges an image of the cultural logic of the Western as an industrial force of animation.

Complementing this ethical commentary on the influx of Western culture, Le Retour also alludes to the domination of African cinema circuits by US (and Hindi) genre fare, where the Western occupied pride of place, pointing to the underlying structures of cultural domination: foreign cinema ownership, inequitable trade deals and other coercive practices whose net effect was to keep African films out of circulation. In response to this model instance of neo-colonial exploitation, African filmmakers called for the nationalisation of film distribution and the taxation of foreign imports as a means to provide the monetary basis for the establishment of national film funds (not dissimilar to those found in European countries at the time). Even in those rare cases where their call was heard, however, implementation of such measures remained sporadic, incomplete and uncoordinated, such that throughout the post-independence era (and for decades to come) African productions only ever constituted a negligible fraction of the overall volume of films in circulation. To make matters worse, cinemas were few and far between in sub-Saharan Africa, most of them clustered in major urban centres, so that large parts of the population remained permanently out of reach.

This neo-colonial entrenchment of infrastructural heteronomy and material deprivation, mitigated only by ineffective and nationally confined state intervention, forms the historical backdrop against which African filmmakers, left to their own devices, were struggling to invent a counter-logistics of circulation. To this end, they fostered alternative distribution networks that would either operate autonomously on a local or regional level, often involving mobile cinemas and self-made equipment, or reroute transnational in/ter/dependence along pan-African, ‘non-aligned’ or diasporic trajectories. In the mid-1960s, facing growing production difficulties, Alassane set into motion a mobile cinema circuit, the “ciné-bus de brousse”[26] (cine-bush-taxi), which he used to present his own works alongside Hollywood and European films he held dear, such as Ben Hur (1959), Ladri di biciclette (1948) or Rio Bravo (1959), in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds. Alassane custom-built a projector for use in his ciné-bus, with some parts imported from Europe while the majority of the apparatus was assembled in Niger.[27] During states of emergency the cost of Alassane’s traveling film exhibition rose steeply: to assuage local police, protection money had to be paid.

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Alassane’s F.V.V.A. (1972) – the title standing for “femmes, voiture, villas, argent” (wives, car, villas, money) – demonstrates that Western culture animated not just returning adventurers but those who stayed at home as well. A young man, again played by Maïga Djingarey, pursues his dream of wealth and a successful life straddling tradition and modernity but is ultimately driven into corruption by his unattainable ambition. After the success of F.V.V.A at the third edition of FESPACO (Festival panafricain de Ouagdougou) where it won the OCAM (Organisation commune africaine et malgache) award, Alassane used the prize money to re-record the sometimes inaudible dialogue, from which a gap resulted between the image and its post hoc synchronisation. Much like other African productions of the period, notably Sembène’s Borom Sarret, F.V.V.A. turns this ostensible bug into a full-fledged feature: Sound is freed from its total “magnetisation” (M. Chion) by the image, their usual hierarchy reversed, affording the voice (orality) a degree of autonomy.

Shaki AKA Albimbola chef de Shaki (1973) is a documentary short in the ethnographic tradition advanced by Alassane’s IRSH colleague Ousseini Sountalma, while the narrative feature Toula, ou le génie des eaux (1973) expands on the aesthetics of his early oral storytelling shorts. King Baharga is desperate: the village has run out of water and there is no rain in sight. Geomancer Bakouri recommends the sacrifice of the king’s niece, Toula, while Ado the shepherd, secretly in love with Toula, leaves the village in search of an oasis rumoured to flourish across the desert. Toula is a desperate inquiry into the forces that animate nature: Should we put our trust in the spirits, or rely on rational inquiry and technological mastery to end the draught. (In the present-set enframing narrative, Ado returns as an airport logistician who argues for a technological solution to the still-persisting problem.) In the end, Ado does find his oasis but the discovery comes too late: Toula has already been killed by the serpent spirit who had conjured the drought in the first place. As the geomancer predicted, the rain starts pouring, so abundantly, in fact, that a lake is now forming where Toula gave her life. The film’s profoundly unreconciled ending sees Ado leave the village, riding into the sunset on his camel. A Western ending of sorts, but with a peculiar inflection: against the Westerner’s attempt to introduce a new law, the rule of animism prevails.

In 1974, having settled down in Tahoua, a trade hub some 500 kilometres northeast of the Nigerien capital Niamey, Alassane built a more permanent open air cinema which he ran for several years, while his nearby family home doubled as a makeshift studio compound. From this base of operations, covering the gamut of cinema infrastructure, Alassane was able to continue his work in a semi-autonomous fashion with little outside support. (State subsidies for Nigerien filmmakers had by this time ebbed considerably, anticipating the state’s total divestment throughout the 1980s.) His was a familial cinema, close to home and anchored in relations of kinship: He taught his children how to use a computer, his neighbours how to make animated films. Adjacent to this domestic studio-cum-cinema complex, Alassane built a hotel and next to it Le Galaxy, a discotheque furnished to give dancers the impression of being enveloped by a starry cosmos. These additions were means to guarantee his continued sustenance and relative independence but also, arguably, furthered Alassane’s quest for making bodies move – for animating the world. Alassane’s late work relied on autonomous structures on a local level yet it was propelled by the dream of scaling things up. A favourite project he was unable to finish in his lifetime: a simple and accessible software build that would enable children all around the world to make their own animated movies.

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After his last feature film, Toula, lack of funds drove Alassane back to animation, a practice he was able to sustain within his familial compound. Articulating the cosmic and the domestic, the distant and the proximate, a moving image practice took shape, sourced and repurposed from “locally sustainable artifacts”,[28] from bits and pieces accumulated over time, found or purchased on markets in the area: a cinema of twine and wire. In the puppet animation film Samba le Grand (1977), Alassane returns to his earlier ambition of fusing the moving image with local storytelling traditions. Watercolours of villages and landscapes are imbued with life by small panning movements across the flat surface, while the puppets are moved either in real time, by invisible hands rendering the imperceptible stirring of bodies at rest, or by stop-motion animation, placed before flat backdrops or within three-dimensional sets – a thoroughly hybrid admixture of animation techniques punctuated on the soundtrack by drum rhythms and Jean Rouch’s voice-over narration.

Samba Gana, a young prince, leaves his father’s palace in search of adventure. One by one, he subjects the peoples of the realm to his father’s benevolent rule. In contrast to the agitation of battle, Samba’s passage across the vast country unfolds in a series of still images that, in the manner of an epic poem, evoke the timelessness of his mythic deeds. Outside his father’s kingdom, Samba Gana encounters and promptly falls in love with Analiatou Bari, a princess gifted with magical talents, who has only just acceded to her deceased father’s throne. While beautiful and wise, Analiatou Bari is also exceptionally proud and has nothing but disdain for her many suitors. Before her father died, he lost fifty towns in battle; ashamed at his failure, Analiatou Bari now finds herself unable to smile, a leaden sadness spreading from her unmoving lips across the whole realm. Samba Gana retakes her lost empire, but she has one last favour to ask of him: battle the evil serpent that has been terrorising her people. After eight years of fierce struggle, the powerful foe is vanquished, killed by a stab of Samba Gana’s lance. His jeli returns the bloodied weapon to Analiatou Bari as evidence of Samba Gana’s victory but she, always sceptical, demands he produce the remains of the slain monster. Inconsolable that the princess would doubt his honesty, Samba Gana turns the lance against himself. When the princess learns of his fate, a smile comes over her face: at long last, she is moved.

Subsidised with French monies, the puppet animation Kokoa (1985[2001]) situates a tournament of kokowa, a traditional form of wrestling that enjoys huge popularity among the Hausa of Niger, in an animal kingdom populated by frogs, crabs, turtles, vultures and chameleons. Unlike the syncretic Samba le Grand, Kokoa is stop-motion animation through and through, accompanied by a naturalist sound design possibly inspired by Ousseini Sountalma’s beautiful Lutte saharienne (1977), a documentary short on the same subject. Stop-motion puppet animation is inherently porous: The animating procedure leaves visible traces – finger prints and finger-shaped indentures – of the puppeteer’s manipulations on the movable components. When animated, these traces of labour turn into a rustling, bubbling surface. Production leaves other traces in Alassane’s oeuvre as well: The “sustainable artifacts” his late animation practice was built around had as their complements artifacts in the more recent sense of that word: unwanted interruptions of – irruptions within – the moving image. Here: of the often adversarial life-world from which it issued. A cinema of twine and wire, but also of sand and dust, breached by tiny particles that suffuse the Sahel and would collect on Alassane’s puppets or along his computer’s electric circuitry, slowing down the processing speed and causing repeated breakdowns. Further infractions and impediments could be added: infrastructural ones, such as regular cuts to the power grid, political ones, such as the workings of (self-)censorship or the divestment of the state from film funding and consequent dependence on French (and later European) co-financing etc. Not unlike Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik’s “cups-of-gas” method, which is characterised by insufficient means, intermittent production schedules and an openness to cosmic intervention, Alassane’s practice is at one and the same time sustained and incapacitated by its environs, by local forces of nature and culture that act upon the tools and output of his practice.[29]

Following Cavell, animation expands the limits and defies the laws of our shared physical world.[30] Physical identity and gravity lose their absolute hold on subjects and objects, the “possibility of metamorphosis”[31] holds sway. Bodies become “indestructible”, even “immortal”, “totally subject to will”, and “perfectly expressive”.[32] Given that they are not, as Cavell argues, “successions of automatic world projections“,[33] animation films find themselves excluded from his definition of what constitutes “a movie”. This characterisation of animation aesthetics was written with Chuck Jones’s Wile E. Coyote in mind, or Mickey Mouse as sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia – with drawn or cartoon animation in the first instance. It fails to capture the qualities that distinguish Alassane’s animation films, precisely because they spill over such finely drawn distinctions.[34] Gravity exercises its indefatigable pull on them, as are other forces emanating from their immediate and more distant production environment(s). Whether drawn, stop-motion or live-action, his images are indiscriminately invaded by their surroundings, inscribed with the inertia and vitality of matter, working against the illusion, so central to the animation films Cavell has in mind, of fluid, seamless and self-propelled motion. Alassane’s animations do not exist outside of our shared world, even where they imagine their own time and space; they are dependent variables, breathing the same air as Alassane and his familial co-producers, subject to the same weather events, infrastructure breakdowns, political conjunctures. Animated by these forces, which, like sands storms, sweep across wide regions and often disregard geographical and political separations, Alassane’s moving images contain multitudes.

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Filmography (in chronological order)

Aouré (Niger, 1962)

La Bague du roi Koda (1962)

La Mort de Gandji (Canada/Niger, 1965)

Bon voyage, Sim (France/Niger, 1966)

Le Retour d’un aventurier (Niger, 1966)

Conteur albarca AKA Deela (Niger, 1969)

F.V.V.A. (Niger, 1972)

Shaki AKA Albimbola chef de Shaki (Niger/Nigeria, 1973)

Toula, ou le génie des eaux – together with Anna Soehring (Niger/West Germany, 1973)

Samba le Grand (Niger, 1977)

Kokoa (Niger, 1985[2001])

[1] I owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to the archival team of the Cinémathèque française led by Céline Ruivo, who generously granted me access to their African collections. This essay would not have been possible without their help and encouragement. The accompanying gifs are taken from Moustapha Alassane’s La Mort de Gandji (1965) © National Film Board of Canada, and Bon Voyage, Sim (1966) © POM Films.

[2] UNESCO (1967). Premier catalogue sélectif international de films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire. Paris: UNESCO (Les Presses Saint-Augustin), 1967, p. 215. [Translation NP]

[3] To eschew the more commonly used patrilineal (and thus eliminative) nomenclature: “By any measure, [Alassane] has thus played something of a pioneering role in African cinema but he is nonetheless generally overlooked in historical accounts […] we wonder how our understanding of African cinema might have developed differently if Alassane rather than Sembène had been posited as a ‘founding father’.” Bisschoff, L., & Murphy, D. (2007). Africa’s Lost Classics: Introduction. Screen, 48(4), pp. 493-499, here p. 498.

[4] Sembène acknowledges both Alassane and Senghor’s lead (cf. Busch, A., & Annas, M. (2008). Ousmane Sembène: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 8). They were preceded, however, by African filmmakers like Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, who already in the 1950s had begun to make films inside France. Another notable precursor was Sudanese filmmaker Gadallah Gubara (sometimes transcribed as “Jadallah Jubara”), who had been making films even before Sudanese independence in 1956, unbeknown to his West African peers and completely neglected, up until very recently, in canonical accounts of the origins of Black African cinema. Gubara is entirely omitted for instance in two authoritative accounts of African film history: Diawara, M. (1992). African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press and Ukadike, N. F. (1994). Black African Cinema. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

[5] Vieyra, P. S. (1975). Le Cinéma africain: des origines à 1973. Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, p. 139. This assessment is echoed by Serge Moati, interviewed in the documentary film Moustapha Alassane, cinéaste du possible (Maria Silvia Bazzoli and Christian Lelong, France, 2009).

[6] For Vieyra, the belatedness of African cinema is one of its most salient characteristics. It resonates with the broader notion of underdevelopment, which the infrastructure-dependent and capital-intensive process of filmmaking confronted like no other art form of the post-independence era, but also implies a revisionist critique of film history as fait accompli – of the notion that cinema sprung whole from the head of Western civilisation. In its belatedness, African cinema reveals the making, sharing and showing of films as sites of continual struggle and transformation.

[7] I gleaned this biographical datum from the abovementioned Cinéaste du possible. It is corroborated by Appiah, K. A., & Gates Jr, H. L. (2005). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 148, whereas other sources give a town by the name of Ndongou or N’Dougou (supposedly situated in Niger) as Alassane’s place of birth (cf. FESPACO & L’Association des Trois Mondes (2000). Les Cinémas d’Afrique: Dictionnaire. Paris: Karthala/ATM, p. 31).

[8] cf. Appiah and Gates, Africana, p. 148.

[9] A literal implementation of Sembène’s mégotage (i.e. cigarette-butt-age) poetics of scarcity.

[10] As revealed in Cinéaste du Possible.

[11] Vieyra, Le Cinéma africain, p. 139. [Translation NP]

[12] UNESCO, Catalogue sélectif, p. 224.

[13] Other sources give “Doigt de Dieu” (i.e. Finger of God), though that seems to me a misapprehension.

[14] “demystifier la technique”

[15] “maîtrisée”

[16] All quotes from the film Jean Rouch et sa caméra au cœur de l’Afrique (1977) by Dutch director Philo Bregstein.

[17] A 16mm camera named after its inventor, André Coutant, which in the anglophone world went by the name of Éclair NPR (for “Noiseless Portable Reflex”).

[18] cf. Cinéaste du possible.

[19] Kodjo, F. (1979). Les cinéastes africains face à l’avenir du cinéma en Afrique. Tiers-Monde, 20(79), pp. 605-614, here p. 612.

[20] cf. for the Nigerian context: Balogun, O. (1986). Cultural Policies as an Instrument of External Image-Building: A Blueprint for Nigeria. Lagos: Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, p. 7.

[21] Poussaint, R. (1971). African Film: The High Price of Division. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 1(3), pp. 51-63, here p. 55.

[22] The man is played by the young Maïga Djingarey, a central figure of the first generation of Nigerien filmmakers and one of Nigerien cinema’s most memorable actors. Young men (and sometimes women) returning from the promised lands of the Occident were an everyday social reality in post-independence Africa and a recurrent motif in post-independence cinema; cf. Et la neige n’était plus (Ababacar Samb-Makharam, Senegal, 1966), Sarzan, La Femme au couteau (Timité Bassori, Côte d’Ivoire, 1969) and many more.

[23] cf. Serge Moati’s making-of, Les Cowboys sont noirs (1967). In Cinéaste du possible, Ousseini Sountalma suggests a reading of the film as a critique of African political power (“le pouvoir africain”), prophetic of the internecine struggles that beset the leadership of African nations in the post-colonial period.

[24] “Enregistrer le comportement de l’epoque”, in: Entrevista Mustapha Alassane, áFrica TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xDA_VNlbQg (26/11/16)

[25] “Generalized contraction with muscular stiffness. These symptoms are found in patients of the masculine sex who find it increasingly difficult (in two cases the appearance of the symptoms was abrupt) to execute certain movements: going upstairs, walking quickly or running. The cause of this difficulty lies in a characteristic rigidity which inevitably reminds us of the impairing of certain regions of the brain (central grey nuclei). It is an extended rigidity and walking is performed with small steps. The passive flexion of the lower limbs is almost impossible. No relaxation can be achieved. The patient seems to be made all of a piece, subjected as he is to a sudden contraction and incapable of the slightest voluntary relaxation. The face is rigid but expresses a marked degree of bewilderment.” Fanon, F. (2004[1961]). The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, p. 236.

[26] CinémAction. (1979). L’Influence du “Troisième Cinéma” dans le monde: Dossier réuni par CinémAction. Revue Tiers Monde, 20(79), pp. 615-618, here p. 639.

[27] As he proudly remarks in Entretien avec Moustapha Alassane. His editing table too was a custom-build: made for 35mm film but adapted by Alassane also to run 16mm.

[28] Niang, S. (2014). African Nationalist Cinema: Legacy and Transformations. Plymouth: Lexington Books, p. 94.

[29] Tahimik, K. (2013[1986]). Cups-of-gas Filmmaking Vs. Full Tank-cum-Credit-Card Fillmaking [sic]. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture, 11, pp. 81-86. Tahimik’s is certainly not the only poetics of scarcity developed in (what was then) the Third World. Sembène’s mégotage has already been mentioned; see also: Rocha, G. (2014[1965]). The Aesthetics of Hunger. In S. MacKenzie (Ed.), Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology (pp. 218-220). Berkeley: University of California Press; Espinosa, J. G. (2014[1969]). For an Imperfect Cinema. In S. MacKenzie, Film Manifestos (pp. 220-230); Kao Chung-li (undated). Experiment – My Film History (unpublished translation from the Chinese original). For contemporary takes and digital updates of this debate under the banner of “the poor image” see: Steyerl, H. (2012). In Defense of the Poor Image. In The Wretched of the Screen (pp. 31-45). Berlin: Sternberg Press; Harcha, J. Z., & Pereira, P. C. (2014). Revolutions of Resolution: About the Fluxes of Poor Images in Visual Capitalism. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 12(1), pp. 315-327.

[30] His argument is a bit more subtle in fact: “The difference between this world and the world we inhabit is not that the world of animation is governed by physical laws or satisfies metaphysical limits which are just different from those which condition us; its laws are often quite similar. The difference is that we are uncertain when or to what extent our laws and limits do and do not apply (which suggests that there are no real laws at all).” Cavell, S. (1979). The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 169f.

[31] Ibid., p. 170.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 169.

[34] Cavell also notes the proximity of animation and animism, an observation he problematically joins to charges of infantilism: “They are animations, disembodiments, pure spirits.” Ibid., p. 170.