Leaf in the Wind (Une feuiile dans le vent), directed by Jean-Marie teno Contemplating Suicide
There's no mention of suicide. Nothing in the woman indicates she's contemplating this. Just a certain quaver, a trembling of the voice - like a leaf on a tree. It is Jean-Marie Teno who speaks of the woman's death. He had interviewed her some five years before her death. Was she contemplating death even as she spoke to him?
We'd sat the previous evening in the falling dark and I had not yet watched Teno's most recent documentary, LEAF IN THE WIND. So we did not talk about that. Nor about his previous films, the ones I was familiar with: COLONIAL MISUNDERSTANDING, AFRICA, I WILL FLEECE YOU!. Instead, we talked loosely of Sembene, Cissé, Sissako, Jean Rouch and Fespaco.
The next day I mention to Teno, after the screening, his tendency to imbue his films with political edge while downplaying the aesthetic form. Teno's response (which I agree with by the way), recall a previous comment elsewhere. "In retrospect," Teno had written, "I realise that my work kept unconsciously answering: "forget the form, as long as I truthfully represent my perception of African reality without losing my audience". This strikes you as you sit before LEAF IN THE WIND.
There is something about the woman's face. She is Ernestine Ouandié, daughter of Cameroonian freedom fighter, Ernest Ouandié, who was executed in the long nightmare that was Ahmadou Ahidjo's reign. Official history had enforced collective silence. Teno's film is thus a confrontation of history's trauma, an excavation of memory: A refusal to forget. But, how do you gaze into the abyss of excavated memory and survive its gaze?
There's something about Ernestine's face - every single blow she's felt in this life is in that look, in those eyes trying to avoid the camera's lens. As if to avoid memory's gaze. Her eyes were like the curtains of the stage. In its backstage, history's trauma unfolded. It was a face that's been beaten a thousand times - by the sun, by the rain. By life.
In true Teno style there's an inartistic quality to this film. There is an austere beauty to this film, heightened by its political truth. And truth is the best picture. The truth of this picture is Ernestine, in the trauma she narrates so matter-of-factly - as if all emotion, all human resistance has crumbled over the years under the weight of memory. The truth is in the picture's political urgency. "I can't help being political," Teno says. I wonder if this film is an act of expiation, if the filmmaker feels catharsis, an unburdening of the soul? I wonder if Teno had carried the burden of guilt for failing to understand Ernestine's cryptic remark about her coming death? "How do you expect a leaf to survive without its stalk?" Ernestine asks at the beginning of the film. And it is this that ends the film. It is, I think, significant that all through the interview, there's a window with burglar-proof bars as a backdrop. Are we prisoners of our forgotten history?
After the screening, there is an ex tempore speech by Jean-Marie Teno on African Cinema, which in its most basic form decries the absence of transmission from one generation to the next and does nothing to nurture collaboration between filmmakers of different generations, with each generation left to fend for itself and act as if it has reinvented the wheel. Teno also highlighted the need for African filmmakers to challenge simplistic and external representations by struggling to introduce elements of complexity in the representation of Africa. Implicit in Teno's address and filmmaking is the need to struggle against being a leaf blown this way and that by an errant wind.
by Didi Cheeka (Special Guest Contribution)
First published in iREP 2015 Newsletter - Day 2, edited by Derin Ajao, with support of iRep FilmFest and Goethe-Institut Nigeria.