The Challenges of Aesthetic Populism: An Interview with Jean-Pierre Bekolo

Akin Adesokan


In the early 1990s a young Cameroonian director, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, stormed the annals of African filmmaking with a stylish urban comedy, Quartier Mozart. This fast-paced story about sexual politics in a Yaounde neighborhood was edited on the template of the musical video, a genre in which Bekolo had worked briefly before turning to filmmaking. Quartier Mozart was widely praised for its iconoclastic attitude in a filmmaking tradition which had formalized cultural identity and the politics of self-representation into aesthetic concerns. The form of Bekolo's work encouraged critics to compare him to the Senegalese Djibril Diop Mambety (d. 1998), another filmmaker who, twenty-years earlier, had similarly redefined African cinema with the magnificent Touki-Bouki (1973), his first work. The film was also so reflexive in its awareness of contemporary cinema that further comparisons with the style of the black American director, Spike Lee, became moot. Such critical comments did not produce an "anxiety of influence" in the young director: he openly and repeatedly declared his interest in the works of Mambety (about whom Bekolo shot a documentary film, Grandmother's Grammar, 1996).
Four years after Quartier Mozart, Bekolo produced and directed Aristotle's Plot (1996), his commissioned entry in the series sponsored by the British Film Institute to mark the centenary of cinema. Other directors in the series included Stephen Frears, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorcese, and Jean-Luc Godard. In this film, Bekolo sets up the genre of action film to question the rationale of mimesis, the Aristotle's plot of the title, which has overdetermined the practice of storytelling, in Hollywood and elsewhere. The confident mix of aesthetic populism and critical, even auterish staging of conceptual issues in African and contemporary filmmaking has become Bekolo's style. For him, a film has to entertain in the traditional sense but without sacrificing an awareness of its place in a vast, diverse but persistent effort to form and transform the practice of African filmmaking. This is a complex but productive intellectual position within an artistic tradition noted for its divisions, factions, and labels. The commitment is pursued further in Les Saignantes (2005), a beautifully photographed film about two femme fatales who set out to rid their country of its corrupt and sexually obsessed male politicians. It is a hybrid sci-fi-action-horror film set in the year 2025, and again, the director uses the opportunity to discursively explore the forms of cinema and of African politics. Bekolo's other directorial credits include Boyo (1988), Un pauvre blanc (1989), and Mohawk People (1990). This interview was conducted on April 29, 2006, in New York City.


African cinema, genre films, politics, Nollywood

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