directed by Roger Gnoan M'Bala
(New Yorker Films, 2001)

Andanggaman, a theatrical premiere directed and written by Ivory Coast-born Roger Gnaoan M'Bala (with a 30-year career in film and TV in his homeland), comes publicized as being Africa's first film about slavery in that continent perpetrated by the indigenous inhabitants on each other for each other and for sale to the Dutch slave traders in exchange for alcohol and guns.

Set in the 17th century on the Western coast of Africa, M'Bala's fifth feature ostensibly bases its story on historical facts. The protagonist Ossei (Ziable Honore Goore Bi), a robust and handsome young hunter/warrior, refuses to comply with his parents' plans for an arranged marriage with a nubile woman of the correct lineage. Ossei prefers a lovely slave girl -- a union frowned upon by the elders. After the stubborn father and son quarrel, Ossei flees into the bush that evening to nurse his wounds, returning later only to find his village and home destroyed, his father and his forbidden beloved ruthlessly killed and his mother (Albertine N'Guessan) captured by Amazon warriors. They conduct slave raids for the brutal king Andanggaman (Rasmane Ouedrago), an archetypal corrupt African of high status who greedily sells humans in exchange for European liquor and firearms to Dutch traders bound for the New World.

Ossei's efforts to free his mother result in his getting captured along with her. The protagonist, unable to liberate his parent from overwhelming forces, makes brave attempts to escape. This captivates Naka (Mylene Perside Boti Kouame), one of the women warriors who was herself forcibly removed from her family and drafted into the king's servitude. Ossei and Naka manage to abscond into the wilderness only to meet a tragically ironic fate.

Throughout all these plot developments, M'Bala subtly yet clearly portrays the caste prejudices that make the system -- by extension, all societal structures -- work like a pecking order. In the movie, a minimum of four social stratas can be seen in operation, each exploited or oppressed by the next. This irony becomes particularly painful during an inspect-the-teeth slave market scene embodying a warped reversal of American representations like Roots or Mandingo. Whether done consciously or not, the film simplifies troubling issues by being colorblind, effortlessly burying the problems of race hatred and intertribal hostility, leaving mostly the ruthless forces of capitalism to cause the enslavement woes.

Andanggaman, with its dazzling visuals of African scenery and settlements and superb performances by talented and fascinating black people of a wide variety of types, also comes graced with a a lovely traditional musical score. For all these virtues that make it a film not to be missed by anyone who cares for entertainment that also enriches and enlightens, Andanggaman somehow lacks the gut-wrenching intensity of the African-American made Sankofa. This shortcoming results from a failure to portray the truly horrendous impact of slavery on the unfortunate people who were bodily carted off to the Americas and those who were left behind. However, M'Bala and his movie deserve credit for not hesitating to blame those who willingly contributed to the bondage of their own people. Andanggaman, with its excellent production values, proves a worthy tribute to Africa's martyrs in the past and alas, those still suffering the same tragic fate in the present day. How unfortunate that this movie can only be seen in limited art house distribution rather than getting wider exposure to reach the large audience it deserves.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001