“When will it end? 1982-201?”
The open-ended question – with the last digit intentionally left out – fills the final screen of Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s most recent film, Le Président (2013). The question refers to the political tenure of the president of Cameroon, where the film has been banned at all locations, including at L’Institut Français Cameroun (IFC, The French Institute). The IFC plays an important role in providing a venue for film screenings in Cameroon, particularly since the closing of Yaoundé’s movie theatre, Abbia, in 2009. Around the time of the release of Le Président, another Cameroonian filmmaker, Richard Fouofie Djimili, was abducted and tortured for eleven days, allegedly in response to material in his film, 139… The Last Predators (2013, watch the trailer here). Djimili’s fictional film focuses on a 139-year dictatorship in an unnamed African country. According to Times Live, shortly before the filmmaker’s abduction, a friend of Djimili’s received a text message that read, “Tell your friend Richard Fouofie he is digging his own grave. His film is part of a destabilization plot that has already been unmasked. If he wants to play the patriot, he will be decapitated. Victory is near.” Reporters Without Borders has documented other cases of harassment, censoring and imprisoning of Cameroonian artists and journalists. On 6 November 2012, President Paul Biya celebrated 30 years in power and Bekolo has quipped that when Biya was minister in 1962, “Barack Obama was one year old.” It is in this political context that Bekolo’s film explores a fictional African president’s last days in power.
Bekolo is troubled by and committed to transforming what he has called the “image problem in Africa”: The misrepresentation of African cultures and peoples in international media and film, which continue to present the subcontinent as solely poverty-stricken, HIV/AIDS-ridden, war-riddled, corrupt and failing. Bekolo works to alter this image by addressing the roots of dominant stereotypes. These ‘image problems,’ he argued in a video interview with David Murphy at the Africa In Motion film festival in Scotland in 2012, are founded in ‘reality problems.’ Seen in this light, Le Président is Bekolo’s intervention in the Cameroonian ‘reality problem.’ The film is an invitation to reinvent the present by revisiting the past. It challenges viewers to conceive of a new reality for the country upon the demise of the current president, Paul Biya (1933-), who has been the president since 1982.
In an interview for SlateAfrique, Bekolo explains, “It is the first time that a movie removes a President. Cinema always arrives afterwards, to tell us [about] the Arab Spring for example. Where was cinema before? Cinema must be forward thinking, open new doors and make the revolutions. I do not want to tell people what happened. I want to inspire those who will make it happen.” In this sense, the film is an anticipatory conversation of a coming political moment, one that poses the question: What will come about in the power vacuum of Biya’s eventual absence?
The film is set a few days before the presidential elections, the next of which is scheduled to take place in Cameroon in 2018. When the president mysteriously disappears, TV reporters speculate his absence and political prisoners discuss possibilities for the future. Through a series of intimate conversations including the fictional president’s internal monologues, dreamscapes and quiet life moments, Bekolo explores a president’s awareness of the approaching end of an era. This unadulterated access to the president’s intimate spaces challenges facile representations of the African dictator, namely those representations popularized in western films of a uniformly dangerous, irrational, womanizing, war criminal. So often in western films African presidents are reduced to tropes and are only seen through the gaze of the white hero. The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond and Machine Gun Preacher exemplify this tendency. Bekolo’s Le Président is instead an artistic exploration of the inner life of an ageing patriarch, a man who dreams of a rendezvous with his deceased spouse, and speculates upon the violent means of his eventual demise. “Has my chauffeur been hired to assassinate me?” He contemplates as he grapples with the destructive political policies that he has implemented.
What struck me the most about the film, in fact, was Bekolo’s humanizing of the ‘African dictator.’ Cameroon’s president rarely speaks publicly and is seldom seen, other than in the seemingly infinite campaign posters, billboards and fliers on prominent display across the country. With thirty-one years in power, it is little surprise that Jo Wood’ou, the Canal-D reporter in Bekolo’s film (a local news channel that follows the events in the film, based on Cameroon’s TV station, Canal2) comments, “no man votes for the president.” Wood’ou’s comment both naturalizes the president’s lifetime in power and simultaneously hints at the state’s repression of the democratization movement in the 1990s and the history of election rigging. As Wood’ou traces his life stages, he sardonically notes that Cameroon has had the same president throughout each stage.
It is the president’s deceased spouse, Jeanne (most likely inspired by the life of Jeanne-Irène Biya, Paul Biya’s first spouse who died in July 1992), who offers the most genuine and scathing criticism of the president’s lifetime of power. It is before her that he is most shamed. He admits to her, “I don’t know anymore… I got lost along the way.” Indeed, women play central roles in Bekolo’s films, including the protagonist known as ‘Queen of the Hood’ in Quartier Mozart (1992) and the two vampire sex workers, Chouchou and Majolie, of Les Saignantes (2005). In each instance, it is the woman who reveals or fights against the tendency of masculine power to corrupt. Likewise, in Le Président, Jo Wood’ou turns to the women who operate the country’s communications via call boxes (umbrellaed, street-side stands where customers can pay for cigarettes, candies and telephone calls by the minute) for knowledge of the president’s whereabouts after his disappearance. The women who manage the call boxes, Wood’ou declares, are the ‘pulse’ of the country.
Lost before Jeanne, the president contemplates, “I feel like I am advancing towards an ocean or a desert… and I don’t recognize anything.” He gets out of his luxury car in the middle of the dense rainforest and begins to walk. The president returns to his village and seems awed by his surroundings. We see him eating les bâtons de manioc (boiled cassava, rolled into lengths and steamed in banana leaves) beneath an open-air roadside stand. Later, Jeanne laughs at the thought of him eating sandwiches, a food associated with foreignness, particularly the French former colonial power. Food becomes a symbol for the distance that he has imposed between himself and his village, his people and his country land.
The film begins and ends with footage of benskiners (motorcycle taxi-men, also spelled bend-skin and bendskin) on the crowded roads of Douala, Cameroon’s industrial capital. The striking figure of the young benskiner at the conclusion of the film weaves in and out of traffic with careless ease, stretching, looking backwards and taking his hands off the throttle. This benskiner is striking in his orange-framed sunglasses, signifying the spread of a globalised hip-hop culture where the young people are known colloquially in Cameroon as les yo(s).
The benskiner is a complex symbol of resistance to state power, and adaptation to a lack of road infrastructure and resilience in an economy that would otherwise exclude him. He is a youthful, masculine figure who challenges authority. Indeed, in Cameroon, the unification of benskiners has created a significant political force in urban and semi-rural areas. This political force has been one reason behind the banning of motorcycles in wealthy and administrative quarters such as Bastos in Yaoundé. The government has repeatedly tried to crack down on benskiners in Douala with sanctions and imposed tax payments but benskiners are notorious for their disrespect of such sanctions and are quick to mobilize collectively. By allocating such a prominent space for the benskiner in the film, Bekolo draws upon this powerful resistance force as an illustration of the fracturing of authoritarian power on-the-ground.
Yet, while the figure of the benskiner features so prominently, he is simultaneously silenced in his anonymity throughout the film. This silencing lends itself to alternate (and less empowering) interpretations of the Bekolo’s focus on the benskiner. Is he meant to illustrate the fatality of young people (particularly young men) in Cameroon, as he speeds in and out of vehicles with no apparent care for his own life? Is the beginning scene, which captures the traffic of a main thoroughfare, meant to show the chaos or misdirection of life and politics in the post-colony? I cannot help but wonder what the benskiner would have said in response to the film’s final question, “When will it end? 1982-201?” had he been asked.
A glimpse of the concerns of the youth comes through during the interaction between a well-known Cameroonian rap, hip-hop artist, Valsero (a.k.a. Le Général) and the film’s president. In the conversation, Valsero addresses the perpetual joblessness of Cameroon’s so-called ‘lost generation’ – those born in the 1980s onwards, as the country’s economy, politics and educational system suffered from the IMF and World Bank-imposed structural adjustment programs. The resulting economic stagnation and withdrawal of the Cameroonian state produced the context in which benskiners flourish. Valsero’s well-known songs Lettre au Président and Ce Pays Tue Les Jeunes voice the frustrations with corrupt political powers and an aging political body that marginalizes the youth, many of the same issues that are central to their conversation in the film. “I am young and I am strong and I am not dead,” Valsero sings at one moment in the film, pointing upward toward the future, toward the ancestors and toward a moment that might harbinger a recognition of the youth’s powerful potential; this in a country where forty per cent of the population is under fourteen years old (U.N Statistics Division, Country Profile for Cameroon 2011). Yet the (re)turn to Valsero – a man in his mid-thirties – as a voice for the youth is itself a powerful reflection of the state of politics in Cameroon, where even alternative voices (I am thinking for example of the long-time opposition leader Ni John Fru Ndi) are hesitant to cede power to younger generations.
Bekolo’s portrayal of the president is forgiving, complex, comprehensive and hopeful. The film provides an important counter narrative to the forecasts of potential political conflict and even genocide for Cameroon’s near future. It is the film’s honesty and lack of condemnation that makes its banning so unfortunate, illustrating the disparities between Cameroon’s real life political climate and the imagined space of the film. We have a sense that the president of the film, so reflective near the end of his political life, might have been grateful for the humanizing depiction offered by Bekolo in Le Président.