Love in the Postcolonial Age
CRC 1265 researchers Séverine Marguin and Daddy Dibinga Kalamba in conversation with Brenda Strohmaier
In West Africa, an entertainment genre called Afronovela is booming. Like South American telenovelas, they are romantic soap operas, but set in Africa. Especially in Senegal and the Ivory Coast, an industry of its own has emerged. In subproject C06, the French sociologist Séverine Marguin and the Congolese director and film scholar Daddy Dibinga Kalamba investigate how these series stage narrations of successful lives.
Brenda Strohmaier: Which Afronovelas have you already watched, strictly for research purposes?
Daddy Dibinga Kalamba: For example, “Pod et Marichou”, one of the most successful Senegalese series ever. It tells the story of a young couple who keep breaking up and getting back together. The two then try to build a life with new partners but keep in touch. But we also saw “Maîtresse d’un homme marié” (mistress of a married man) and “Karma”, a series about the life of a single mother and painter and her friends.
B.S.: So what is the specifically spatial aspect of studying such sentimental fare?
Séverine Marguin: We look at these popular everyday stories from West Africa, for example, to see how rooms in houses are depicted and how people move around in them. We then see Marichou go into the kitchen to talk to her former lover Pod on the phone in private, because she knows that her new husband never enters this room. Ultimately, the point is to find out something about postcolonial Senegalese and Ivorian society, especially how they deal with conflicts between modernity and tradition.
D.D.K.: That’s why we are also interested in where the money for these productions comes from and how that relates to the depiction of space. “Pod et Marichou”, for instance, was made with Senegalese money and Senegalese actors for a Senegalese audience.
S.M.: The postcolonial aspect about it is that this series does not show a long-suffering, poor Africa, but successful, wealthy people.
D.D.K.: Pod, for example, is a filmmaker in the advertising business, that’s not someone who dreams of living in Europe; at most he sends his daughter there for a holiday. The kicker is that the scenes set in his company were shot in the rooms of the series’ production company. Here the spatial levels we’re investigating are blended. We also visit filming locations and talk to the makers of Afronovelas. When you talk to some of them, they say: “We could apply for public funding, also from Europe. But we prefer to do it on our own.”
B.S.: And what about Netflix?
S.M.: They don’t produce for Africa yet, mainly because of access to the local infrastructure. There is Internet, but a subscription is still far too expensive. Canal+ Afrique and TV5 Monde, on the other hand, are broadcast via cable and are indeed watched throughout the entire subregion.
B.S.: Are many West African series still being filmed with French funding?
S.M.: Yes, this ties in with the colonial past; there is still a lot of money flowing from French state or francophone organizations. There are also francophone channels operating worldwide, such as Canal+ or TV5 Monde, which are widely distributed in Africa and which also co-produce series for the African market.
B.S.: How does French participation affect the depiction of space?
S.M.: This can be seen very well in the series “C’est la vie”, co-written by Charli Beléteau, the director of a very famous French series called “Plus belle la vie”. 75 percent of the money for it comes from a French state-funded organization that focuses on women’s and children’s health. The result is edutainment, entertainment with an educational slant. The series is set in a health center in Dakar, the stories deal with contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, forced marriage.
D.D.K.: And the conflict between modern medicine and traditional medicine, which works with plants and spiritual practices.
S.M.: Traditionally, a “marabut” comes to the sick, a healer who drives away evil spirits. “C’est la vie” questions such medicine.
B.S.: Do you actually watch TV together?
D.D.K.: Yes, and very often we see something different in the same scene. In “C’est la Vie”, for example, a woman asks her husband for money, you thought that was terrible, Séverine.
S.M.: Oh yes. She has no financial autonomy at all, not even money to go to the market. For me, as a Western woman, financial independence is very significant.
D.D.K.: It’s true, there is this dependency on the man, but it’s not to oppress the woman. I lived in Senegal for a long time, and for me it’s just a way in which the society there is structured. It’s quite normal to ask the man for money, even for women who have some of their own.
S.M.: You can also see it the other way around. The man must be able to give money to his wife every day. And in Senegal, where some people have two or three wives, there is a lot of pressure on men.
B.S.: How does “C’est la vie” represent space?
D.D.K.: You can see that a lot more money, time and care went into it than in “Pod et Marichou”, for example.
S.M.: For “C’est la vie”, a cultural center was converted into a hospital. And when they show private homes, they go to great lengths to portray authentic life in Dakar. On the other hand, locally produced series such as “Pod et Marichou” show space as an ideal projection. They don’t show the life of normal Senegalese, but what they would like to have.
D.D.K.: And these desires are, of course, also real. Even if “C’est la vie” is supposedly more realistic, many interviewees say that the series is less authentic because of this Western perspective. After all, the history of television in Africa is not a history of educational television. Television in Africa has always been about entertainment. The forerunner of Afronovelas is something called “film theater”, which were basically sitcoms whose sets were not very important.
S.M.: One legacy of that is that there is an incredible amount of talking in Afronovelas. Nothing moves, people just sit on the sofa or on the carpet and talk. I found that very unusual at first.
D.D.K.: In contrast, in a series like “Cocoa”, which was financed by Kanal+, you see real outdoor shots, for example of people working in the fields. The interiors, on the other hand, look like they do in typical Afronovelas, although anyone who knows both countries will immediately see that “Cocoa” shows Ivorian houses and not Senegalese ones.
S.M.: Our project aims to deconstruct such spaces. And to show that what we are shown as very Senegalese or very Ivorian is a social construction staged by a film crew. The scriptwriter writes a story, then location scouts go on a search, and finally they show proposals to the director and the producers. So nothing we see there is an accident.
B.S.: Daddy, what is it like for you to work with a spatial theory developed in the West?
D.D.K.: This theory is like a knife, whether I use it to cut an apple or a mango, it doesn’t matter. I think it’s innovative to use it to approach moving images. Otherwise, film theorists sit in front of a screen or a monitor; we even go to filming locations to understand how space is created there. The importance of our project stems from the fact that these series have a huge impact on how viewers imagine the good life. This influence is often overlooked. To understand Africa, many look to intellectuals like Felvine Sarr or Alain Mabanckou. But Afronovelas, with their truth, are much closer to the people.
Dr. Séverine Marguin is a postdoc at the CRC 1265 and heads its methods lab.
Daddy Dibinga Kalamba is a research associate at the CRC 1265. He has worked as a director himself and holds a Master’s degree in documentary film.
Dr. Brenda Strohmaier is a journalist, urban sociologist, and freelance curator at the Berlin educational institution Urania.