Having read Agnes Binagwaho’s review of ‘Africa United’ (‘Africa United does not portray a new image of Africa’) I wish to respectfully disagree with the Doctor’s take on the issue of cinema and its’ representation of Africa.
The central thesis of Dr Binagwaho’s article is that ‘Africa United’ shows a lot of negative images about Africa ranging from weak institutions to poverty and everything in between. I’m not here to defend the film on its’ merits- I’m sure many others will rise up to the task- but I believe this criticism is based on a fundamental misrepresentation of the aims and purpose of cinema. Cinema is not supposed to be the most accurate representation of reality. Africa United is not a documentary after all. It is a fictional story tailored to reach and entertain the biggest possible audience. While it would obviously be good if such films had many positive images about Africa, the failure of the film to be the screen equivalent of a ‘Visit Africa’ brochure should not be held against it.
Dr Binagwaho also states that the film undermines parent-child dialogue, and instead shows ‘negative’ parent-child dialogue. However drama and conflict are integral to cinema. A film in which the children obediently listened to their parents and did not put a foot wrong would not be a film anymore- it would be a public service announcement.
It is also likely that such a film would leave the audience struggling to stay awake- a battle they would undoubtedly lose. And one must be careful not to read too much into such situations. After all, films showing certain behavior do not imply an endorsement of said behavior.
The child running preferring to play football and ‘running away’ from HIV treatment is also highlighted by the article but that is also a misunderstanding of how fiction works. Again, if characters in cinema and literature made all the right decisions, it would not make for compelling drama.
And I would not be making any groundbreaking statements by arguing that cinema is not a guide on how best to lead one’s life. It is merely an expression of creativity and an appeal to our relentless desire to be entertained and challenged.
Like many of my peers, I watched plenty of films while I was growing up and many of those films contained the sort of moral complexities seen in films like Africa United. This exposure to cinema in all its forms did not turn my generation into raving psychopaths.
And it seems to me that if Dr. Binagwaho’s review is any guide then the film actually struck a sort of balance between the stereotypical African images she bemoans and the ‘new’ Africa.
She criticizes the film because it ‘does not build on elements of growth, peace and prosperity of the African continent.’ What film is truly capable of doing that? Would that even count as a film anymore?
Ultimately Africa United is just a work of fiction and expecting it to be so much more is misguided. There is nothing wrong with cinema trying to promote good morals and behavior, but that is not its main concern. We should also remember that characters making wrong decisions can also serve as a cautionary tale if one is determined to turn film into a means of conveying moral and political messages.
I feel film audiences all over the world-including children- are sophisticated enough to realize that ultimately Africa United is just a film.
Mr Minega is a lawyer based in Kigali