“A Tale of African Cinema”
Le dit du cinéma africain.
Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991)

“A Tale of African Cinema”

Le dit du cinéma africain. Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991)

In Premier catalogue sélectif international

de films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire, Unesco 1967

(Translated from the French by Beti Ellerson)

I no longer remember exactly the first film that I saw, but I remember perfectly well the first film screening that took place in my village. In 1908, a European came to Bandiagara  (Mali) to show a film.

The Islam of my village was not yet free of the opposition to the veneration of images. Tierno Bokar had not yet appeared with his spiritual force and powerful charisma. Thus, the marabouts came together to foil this venture. In fact, not only did this  “white man” wanted to show these ungodly images to the faithful, but he wanted to charge a modest fee.

This was too much, this thing had to be sabotaged. At the time it was not easy for black people to spoil a project of the white man in a colonized country. The marabouts, realizing they could not stop the screening, came together at the mosque. They held a secret meeting around the great tafsir.

The grand Imam addressed his peers in these terms:

“Here, my brothers, in person, the local governor called us this morning—Babaly Hawaly, Therno Makka, Tierno Bobbo, Antioura and myself. He announced that a white man has come to provide an evening of entertainment to the residents of Bandiagara. This white man would like to show us something extraordinary.  The governor explained to us what this ‘something’ was about.

“We have concluded that the entertainment that was proposed to us could only be a satanic seduction. If it were not, nighttime would not have been chosen to present the film.

According to the governor, the event will take place in complete darkness. Why in the dark? It is easy to guess. We all know that the devil only acts in dense obscurity. Who does not know among us that non-Muslim white people have a pact with the devil? And the one who just came is one of them and of the worst kind. The “thingamajig” that the white man intends to show us could only be the manifestation of a troublesome spirit of Allah, which the Emissary of God, Solomon, has sealed in a chest and thrown away in the deep sea. The fisherman’s net brings it to surface now and then. Each imprisoned spirit that has been retrieved promises to loyally serve he who has hauled it in, on the condition that he does not throw it back to sea.

No sorcerer would publicly admit to witchcraft. No honorable brother would betray his brother either. The governor has tried as best he could to be honest, he will not unveil the secrets of his brother; that he is more or less a sorcerer. When the tongue turns in the mouth, the spirit captures and seizes the meaning that it is expressing in spite of itself. Thus, when the governor spoke to us this morning, we understood. By deduction we knew that he did not want us to know.

“What will be shown to us tomorrow evening is a scene of “moving shapes”. It is devilry.

“The white man will turn off the lights, like a magician, he will cast a spell, either speaking to himself or aloud. The devil will respond to his call. The white man will order him to do a “blasphemous miracle”. The devil will emit some “ungodly luminosity”. This light will pierce the darkness and, coming in contact with a large enchanted cloth, it will transform itself into moving images, which are in reality a kind of apparition, diabolic ghosts, ready to trick the true believers.

“We conclude that these images are blasphemous. Those who watch them and take pleasure in doing so will commit a great sin. Whoever watches these wretched forms will not see the paradise of Allah, the splendid figure of Mahomet. How unfortunate to never be able to see in the next world, the glowing image of Our Lord Mahomet!

“Let us return to our homes and, before tomorrow, each one of us must speak to his brother, his friend, his wives and children.

“The motto that each brother must give to his brethren is:

“Refrain, absolutely, from going to see the white sorcerer’s devilish spectacle.”

But this motto must circulate by word of mouth because if the governor learns that we are sabotaging his brother’s “thingamajig”, surely he will put us in jail. He will make us carry bricks and pound big red millet. It is not worth going to prison for such nonsense.  Agreed? 

--Yes, yes, it is agreed.”

It was so well understood that before the last prayer for the night, which takes place around eight o’clock, the news had spread right to the houses of the cloistered women.

The night of the spectacle comes. The governor introduces himself, accompanied by four white men, constituting the entire European population of Bandiagara. But the only people of the village who show up are the district chief surrounded by the local chiefs and ten or so prominent figures, which is not a lot out of a population of 15,000 to 20,000 residents.

The governor flies into a white man’s rage. His furor rises like a wave against the Toucouleur chief, Alpha Maki Tall, who has just succeeded his father Aguibou Tall, king of Macina.

The governor starts shouting like a little dog:

“Oh Alfa Maki! Why isn’t there a greater showing of people as I had order? Could you care less what I say? What’s going on here?”

Alfa Maki turns towards an old man and says:

“My father Diafara, the governor asks me why isn’t there a greater showing of people as he had ordered?”

The old man then turns towards a Sofa chief and says to him:

“Koniba Koudala! The district chief says that the governor says: Why have the people not come as he ordered?”

Koniba Koudala knew well the response that he was to give and said:

“Lord, tell the district chief to tell the governor that everybody in Bandiagara—men, women, and children, are scared stiff of the “thingamajig” that we are supposed to view. We who have come, we are living at this moment our last hours, condemned to death. And if everybody leaves in disorder when the show begins, the governor should not be surprised. But we will attempt to resist our fear, though nothing can be guaranteed.”

The screening went as planned, but no one, not even Alfa Maki, who was a man very open to progress, agreed to look at the satanic images. Everybody took advantage of the fact that it was dark to cover his eyes. Madi Coumba would later say:

“We attended the show out of respect for the governor’s order, but we closed our eyes and saw nothing, in order to assuage our conscience.

I shall now come to my mother, Kadidia Paté. She remained under the curse on the machine that “spat shadows” that was thrown in 1908 by the Ulemas of Bandiagara,

In 1934, she came with me to Bamako where I was employed as the “native” secretary. I asked my mother to go to the cinema with me. Still under the influence of the interdiction of 1908 by the marabouts of Bandiagara, my mother shook her ears (a gesture of exorcization that one does with the hands to ward off the curse of the dreadful words that were heard) and says to me:

“Ah! When these diabolic shadows were silent, I refused to watch them, and now that they speak, you want me to see them! I will not go my son, no, I will not go.”

My wife, children and I conspired against my mother. We would not stop until we succeeded at least once to take her to the cinema. This would not be easy. My mother would not be taken in by our games or tricks.  But an unexpected occasion presented itself two years later.  My younger sister, Aminata, my mother’s favorite daughter, gave birth to a son. I told her about the good news. My mother was so happy that she said:

“Oh my son! My son you have brought me great happiness. Tell me what can I do to return the happiness.”

I took my mother by her word and said:

“Mother, what would make me really happy is if you would go to the cinema with me.”

Annoyed, my mother frowned, revealing a quiet irritation. She finally regrouped and said to me as if to get over this setback:

“Amadou, my son, a worthwhile person is as good as her word. If these words are broken, in other words, if they lose their value in the eyes of others, this person will lose her dignity and will become a good-for-nothing. You’ve got me, so to honor my word, I will go to see your wretched ‘machine that spits images’, whenever you like.”

My mother was not literate. She had traveled very little. She had never gone outside of Mali, only familiar with Bandiagara, Mopti, Kayes, Bamako and Bougouni. She remained the “complete” Fulani woman. Nonetheless, she had the privilege of living for eighty-seven years in very good health. When she died she had all thirty-two teeth. Her hearing remained as acute as a shepherd’s dog. Right until her death she was able to thread a needle. As a genuine act of thanksgiving, she loved to say: “Intact, I will bring back to Allah, the servants that he granted me when I came into the world.” (The Fula consider our senses as servants that are endowed to us by God).

The most extraordinary characteristic that mother possessed, even more than her great beauty, was a remarkable intelligence, enhanced by a phenomenal memory.

My mother, my wife Baya Diallo and I, finally went to the cinema. My mother followed the film from start to finish. She showed no exterior reaction. She remained impenetrable; it was as if she had seen or heard nothing at all. I was very disappointed, for I had expected, if not some fuss, at least a muted scream from her. But nothing, absolutely nothing at all.

When we returned home my mother went to her room without having ruptured the silence. I was convinced that she had closed her eyes during the entire film like the distinguished residents of Bandiagara. And thus, she had honored her word by going with me to see the film, but not violating her conscience by refusing to gaze upon those sinful images. As for me, my venture had failed; my mother had once again shown that she could not be easily taken in.

The next morning, before going to work, as usual, I went to say hello to my mother before leaving.

She gave me her blessings as she does every morning. But she said nothing about my “machine that spits images”; which confirmed what I had surmised: that she had seen nothing while at the film screening.

But after the prayer at sunset, I notice my mother’s favorite servant, Batoma Anta, carrying her prayer mat. She placed it next to mine; my mother came and sat down.

She said to me: “Do you have additional prayers to say at Icha (the last prayer of the day)?

I said: “Mother if you need me, to be at your disposition is the best prayer that I could ever make.”

Before I could say anything else, Mother said: I want you to talk to me about your “thingamajig” from yesterday evening.

I could not begin to say how glad I felt when I realized that my mother had purposely kept silent.

Mother said to me: “Amadou, my son, yesterday evening I saw a wonderful machine. That man can make such a creation was not what gave me such a pleasant surprise. When someone accomplishes such a miracle, this does not surprise me at all; because for me, this remains in the realm of possibilities.  Tierno Bokar, our master, has taught us that Allah has made of man his Representative on earth.

“This status was not given to man by God without entrusting in him a bit of divine power. For to achieve wonders is a result of God’s power. Therefore, it is not surprising that a being born of this bit of power—in this case, a human—accomplishes these wonders. Rather what would be surprising is if man did not create wonders.

“I admired this human creation of cinema, but I am not surprised.

“I want to thank you for taking me to the cinema. I ask God’s forgiveness. Yesterday I had evidence that the worse error that someone can make on this earth is to condemn before seeing and knowing. I felt how wrong it is to refuse to see, if nothing but to educate oneself. Tierno Bokar said: “Wisdom desires to know all, which is preferable to knowing nothing.  One must know the lie in order to separate it from the truth. One must know the good in order to distinguish it from the bad.”

In 1908, our well-intentioned holy men and esteemed notaries had declared that the “tiyatra” is a magical machine of diabolic invention. But for me rather, the cinema is a wonderful instructor, an eloquent master who amuses and instructs.  The film screening yesterday, diabolic or not, permitted me to find an irrefutable proof to bring into being within myself, something that I had only accepted by absolute confidence in Tiero Bokar who taught it. Up until now, I had no faith that was actually born from a conviction inside myself. Yesterday evening your cinema gave me the private confidence that I had needed spiritually to build my faith on firm ideas and not through passive conformity.

“Mother, what is this thing?” I asked.

After a long moment of silence, she said to me:

“For a long time, our marabouts have had serious disagreements. They fiercely debate the question whether there must be a “mediator” between an individual and God.

“This has brought about serious discussions and has triggered many quarrels. This has propagated disputes in the mosques, right into the homes of close-knit families. In certain regions, there have been bloody clashes.

“Modern marabouts who have recently returned from the Orient support the view that people do not need someone else to interact and have contact with the divine or to speak to God. For these marabouts, each person may speak with God directly, without an intermediary.

“On the contrary, the old turban-wearing men of the village who are from the old school, uphold the view that a person will always need a mediator between God and himself.

“Tierno Bokar is situated between these two tendencies. He has taught that there are cases where we do need a mediator, a person who speaks to God in our behalf, but there are nonetheless cases where we may interact directly with God.

“Yesterday, I had perhaps material proof of the possibility of these two cases about which Tierno Bokar has spoken: direct contact and contact through an intermediary.

“When we entered the cinema, before the film, you showed me a large white cloth on which a beam of light was projected which would then become images that we could look at and recognise. You also pointed out a small house situated rather high above us. You told me that it was in this room that the machine that spat images was located.

“In this little house, there are several openings through which light shines; ending on the large white cloth. As soon as the operator, whom we do not see, begins his work, some noise comes out of the little house. It passes over our head while we are thrust into a deep darkness—a metaphor of our ignorance of the unknown. The light came from the little house in measured portions, in thin lines, rather than all at once.

“We were facing the large white cloth. It was only when looking at it that we could clearly see, make out and understand the images that unfolded in front of us.  We could see horses running, people walking, and villages emerging. We saw the thick vegetation in the rural area, the blooming countryside, the plain sharply fall away. All of this as if in a long reverie, clear and precise, as if daydreaming.

“After having watched the large white cloth for a long time, I wanted, in its absence, to make out with my eyes alone, the images which came from the little house. What happened to me? As soon as I turned directly towards the opening in the little house, the beam of light that came out blinded me.  Although the images were in the rays, my eyes were not strong enough to detect it. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, but my ears continued to clearly make out the sound that accompanied the light.

“I found myself in the follow situation: First, when I watch the big white cloth, I see the images and hear the sound. I benefit from both the image and sound. But, on the other hand, when I only use my eyes, I only hear the sound. I am not able to endure the powerful light, which blinds me. At the same time that there is some good in it, there are also disadvantages.

“This deduction leads me to the conclusion that as long as the cloth is essential to clearly see the images and discern the origin of the sound, a mediator is needed between us and God to understand the divine message.

This is the end of my mother’s story.

Three years later, Tierno having gone to visit the cherif Hamallah in Niero, passed through Bamako. I told him how I had succeeded in bringing my mother to the cinema and what important lesson she drew from the film. Tierno, in turn, decided to go see this “thingamajig”, damned in 1908 in Bandiagara.

On the road returning after the film, Tierno says to me: “I wonder what could be so disapproving about the film that we just watched.”

The next day, Tierno came back to the discussion of the film of the day before. He said to me:

“Amadou, what my beloved little sister, Kadidia Paté said of the film proves that the brilliance of her intelligence still remains clear and forceful.  She is a child of Adam who knows how to see, discern, compare and draw from a lesson and benefit from it. There is a divine book that no other celestial book could eliminate and with common sense or sound reasoning whose verses would never be in disagreement. This great book of God, with multiple pages, colors and forms, is nature. What unfolds within them could just as well be lessons for humankind.

“The Koran, the Bible, as all other sacred books say the same thing; indeed, though they are stated differently according to the time and following the interpretations of the era.

“As for vegetation, these organisms exist everywhere that there is soil, and grow exactly the same way. The roots and branches grow in exactly in the same direction.

“God asks us to meditate on his creation and not on his essence, because there is no imperfection in divine creation. Therefore, the best examples must be taken from nature, the Great work of the one and only supreme God.

“The prophet Mahomet said: “To each era, its book.” We must draw lessons from the events that we experience and see around us: trains, boats, airplane, cinema, etc. There are so many sources from which we should draw: from the example of the Disciples before us; from the elements needed to formulate our modern parables and to clarify our faith. In order that it might be understandable within a contemporary context. The prophet of God said: “Speak to the people within the capacity of their understanding.”

“Would not one communicate differently to a man who has discovered how to fly in the air with an airplane than to a person who lives as a gatherer?  Or to people who do not read or write, and who have not invented much or who have not seen much beyond their own environment?

“To those who have conquered distance around the globe, and who have discovered the vast, hidden forces of nature, there must be a new spiritual language.

“To come back to the parable of the cinema, of which the screen convinced Kadidia of the necessity of a mediator, we have only to be glad.

“We can by metaphor, say that the Disciple or the Saint is the necessary screen between a person and God.

“It is written in the Koran: “It is not a certainty that God will speak; if it must be, it is by revelation, or behind a veil, or through a messenger, and with God’s permission, what God wills”. (S.XLII-V.50-51).

“As in the same parable, those who look directly in the opening of the projection box may continue to hear the sound, but will not be able to see the images that create these sounds. Moreover, the light will blind them. The effect of passing in front of the screen can only be partial and imperfect. This is a warning to those who are intelligent and have a gift for listening.

“Whereas the person who discreetly faces the screen and looks, will hear the sound and see the images as well as discern the transmitter of the sounds. One would know if it is a person who makes the sounds; if it is a horse that neighs; or a priest who gives blessings. This would be evident because one will be able to see and hear clearly.

“Tierno, the Sheik, the intermediary, is indispensable to the person who wants to be fully actualized on the path to God, as the screen is necessary to the cinema audience, that wants to see. It is not certain that everybody will understand the veils through which God speaks to people. This is why the Lord has initiated Disciples. His Disciples have instructed the saints, who have become the instructors and auxiliaries of religion, and those who act on the behalf of others.”

Tierno also exchanged a few words about his impression of cinema.

Here is what he said:

“A few hours had passed since night had fallen. We had finished our dinner. Since the beginning of time, when one has eaten its fill, it is now time for entertainment. Each era has its own pleasures. In the grand village of the Tubab the cinema is an event that attracts many people. Here you find a large group of people before a large entrance gate, waiting to buy tickets at the box-office.  Among the waiting crowd, there are those who walk around, with no particular aim; while others engage in friendly chat, and still others discuss with occasionally loud outbursts.  There are those who mingle among the crowd selling various items as they shout: Candy, cigarettes, matches, dates, cola, lemonade, peanuts! Who wants to buy? Soon you will be in complete darkness and will no longer have the chance to get any!”

“An apt warning for those soon to be in complete darkness…but who can actually hear it!

“Guards are at the entrance, others pace back and forth. A symbol of the angels at the gates?

“Tickets, tickets! One shouts. The crowd rushes like resurrection day, but alas, they cannot all enter at once. One must struggle to form a line in front of the box office. Depending on the sum paid, one is given a ticket denoting 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. The amount paid determines the best seating.

Making a first comparison, Tierno Bokar says:

“The crowd could be compared to all the people as a whole who live on the universe. Based on the work one does and the money that one may accumulate, one may pay a certain sum to buy a ticket.

“The 1st class is reserved for Europeans. But there were rare exceptions for certain select Africans to also have these places. At the same time, in the house of God, places are allotted based on merit, however, even those who do qualify only acquire these places exceptionally. This is proof that men are not equal, neither in the lower world, nor in the other world. They may act as if there is justice, but not to a comparable equality.

“The 2nd class is reserved for Africans who have earned money and thus may pay the price of a 2nd class ticket. They represent the faithful who have obtained justice and are compensated for their effort. While those in the 3rd class may be compared to those who have worked little, God will receive them, of course, in the other world, but they are in a less desirable situation. They do not play in the divine spectacle as those chosen in the first and second classes.

“It is written in the sublime Koran that: Those who have faith and do good will enjoy happiness in heaven. (S. XIII-V. 28)

“There is strict monitoring of the tickets and the guards check to make sure that each place corresponds to the assigned ticket, in the same way that each person at death must be placed in the proper casket, before judgment, and to his heavenly place in the Paradise of Allah.

“Once in place, all are captivated, not quite knowing what to expect.

“People forget quickly. After a few minutes, the audience bustling in the light of the electrical lamps, begin to look for something to do until the film begins. This moment is indicative of our fleeting and worldly existence. Another kind of interaction forms. There is a reversal from the scene outside, where more of the audience is seated than standing. But the same interaction reproduces itself, items are for sale and chatting is heard throughout.

“Suddenly the lights go out and on, a signal that indicates that everyone must take their seats. This also may be interpreted as a symbol that God sends from time to time. But people are so distracted they easily return to their frivolous pursuits.

“There is cemetery-like silence. This moment, plunged into darkness, everyone is symbolically dead. Strange and unusual sounds rupture the silence. And rays of light transpierce the darkness.

“Each spectator only thinks of herself/himself. Is this not an image of the last judgment? The day when the mother leaves her children and where people turn their eyes towards their mediators, Moses to the Jews, Jesus to the Christians and Mahomet to the Muslims?

To summarize all that I have detailed, I am happy to concur with your mother: In the same way that the screen is necessary for cinematographic projections, an intermediary is necessary between the faithful and their God.”

And Tierno recited the fatiha, the Muslim paternoster and first verse of the book of Guidance: El quor’ an – El Azim.