Launderers, Thieves and Housemaids: Looking back at African cinema in transit

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The knee-high images of attempted lynchings and gang assaults in Area Boys, a short film by Nigerian-born Omelihu Nwanguma which played at the Walter Reade during the New York African Film Festival, conceive of a place where the prevalent feeling is High Anxiety. Like Judy Kibinge’s Killer Necklace – which spends less time in the streets but never ignores their potential for dereliction and tantalization  – Area Boys wants to understand Africa’s tumultuous state of affairs through its young people. If this is a continent for which laundering and violence is hardly new, it is certainly also a  place where a younger, more energized generation is eager to put their misdirected energies to use.

In Area Boys, twenty-something friends Bode and Obi back-slap and fast-talk their way through cramped neighborhood streets, stealing cars and picking pockets before eventually abandoning their boss and, presumably, their crimes. Complete abandonment becomes slippery, however, as the pair’s illustrious dreams of wealth and women are never fully exorcised, teasing them again towards a life where moral choices become much more complicated, and more ambiguous. Nwanguma gives this world a sense of toughness, dispersed across hand-held digital video images, described with bright whites and yellows, and made more tangible by jump-cuts that make Kibinge’s film feel less angry, more stately in comparison.

What Kibinge’s Killer Necklace does achieve that Area Boys doesn’t – and perhaps this is because the more immediate, topical social goals of Nwanguma’s film hardly make it necessary – are subtle psychological characterizations typical of traditional narrative dramas. Boo, an ambitious young man, is determined to purchase a gold necklace for his lover, Wai, a quiet woman employed as a housemaid by an aging, moneyed couple doubling as her parents. Entering into the company of  swindlers and lenders, Boo follows money trails that he believes will bring him closer to the necklace and, consequently, to Wai. But the prevailing mood here smacks of helplessness, not hope. Boo is too sensitive a character, too vulnerable to his own psychological weaknesses to ever transform his ambitions into a workable reality (whether this reality be to marry Wei or shoot and murder her employer, neither ever take place).

“Transition” was the theme of this year’s New York African Film Festival, in which both Kibinge and Nwanguma’s films had their American premiere. One can sense in these stories a pervasive skepticism and tenderness towards the experiences of a new generation in Africa; skepticism because the life of crime has failed to make more responsible lifestyle choices available to these young people,  and tenderness because of the concerns – the real, felt moral concerns – that they undeservedly may never have access to such better choices. The transition, then, is occurring across generations just as extensively as as it is occurring across African politics and power. In the scale of their provocations and in their intimate contact with these feelings, both Area Boys and Killer Necklace reveal an African cinema in transition, as well.

-Ricky D’Ambrose

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