Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: All Eyes on Africa

by |

2010 World Cup South Africa. Photo: Marcello Casal Jr//ABr

World Cup 2010, South Africa. Photo by Marcello Casal Jr//ABr

The World Cup has been grabbing vast swaths of attention for the game of soccer, and providing a raison d’être for some serious-minded programming focusing on the host country, South Africa, as well as the larger host continent. I’ve managed to catch some thin, yet uplifting, segments on ABC, showing South Africans recounting the injustices of apartheid and speaking hopefully of the future. That’s all good, but it’s left me wanting more.

Luckily, this week, POV is airing Promised Land, about the dicey issue of land reform in South Africa, and next week, HBO will be showing A Small Act, about a scholarship program in Kenya. I’d recommend watching these documentaries — as well as Good Fortune,
which will be on POV next week — to anyone wanting to scratch deeper beyond the surface. And to go a step further, I thought I’d ask the directors of each film, Yoruba Richen (Promised Land) and Jennifer Arnold (A Small Act), to steer us toward what they think are the best documentaries about Africa. (I know I’ll be making sure to see Long Night’s Journey into Day by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann soon.)

Yoruba Richen, Director, Promised Land

Doc Soup Man: In your mind, what have been some of the most important (or successful) documentaries about Africa?

Yoruba RichenYoruba Richen: For me, some of the most important docs about Africa have been Long Night’s Journey into Day, which followed three cases that were heard in front of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the fall of apartheid; The Iron Ladies of Liberia, which chronicled the first year in office of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia; Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death which is about how King Leopold II of Belgium turned Congo into his own private colony; and Cuba: An African Odyssey which illuminates our understanding of the Cold War through its least known context — Africa.

What are some of your favorite documentaries about Africa? Why?

Richen: These [films named above] are also some of my favorite documentaries about Africa. In the case of the Congo and Cuba: African Odyssey films, they reveal a history that has been distorted and suppressed as is so often is the case when it comes to the history of Africa. And unlike so many films that just document the horror of African nations (war, genocide, etc.) these films reveal the historical context for some of those atrocities. I don’t think you can really understand the situation of the Congo today without knowledge of the brutality that Belgium imposed on the country during its colonial rule. And how can you understand the economic and social conditions of many African countries without understanding the liberation movements of those countries and how the West retaliated against them because they threatened its economic and political interests?

I love Iron Ladies of Liberia because it is hopeful and chronicles how a country is trying to rebuild itself after decades of war and brutality. And of course, it has a great, charismatic character: President Sirleaf Johnson, who made history by becoming the first female president of an African nation.

With the World Cup happening in South Africa now, a lot of Americans have been exposed to very positive images of Africa, as well as the suggestion that many of Africa’s problems are a thing of the past. Can you tell me a little about what you think of this statement? And can you tell me about how your film fits into this discussion?

Richen: Well, it’s important to remember that South Africa is distinct from other countries in Africa. The history and economy are pretty unique, so it’s hard to make generalizations about Africa as a continent from the South African experience. However, I think the World Cup has actually brought some international attention to the challenges that South Africa &mdash and Africa in general — faces. There have been recent reports about the persistent economic inequality that South Africa endures. This was especially pronounced because the government was spending millions building new stadiums and facilities to accommodate the World Cup while the country still grappled with high unemployment, and many people were without access to electricity and water.

And what especially resonated for me, given the subject of my documentary, were reports that in some areas, landless communities were being cleared to make way for these new buildings. The irony, of course, is that this time, it is the black government that is undertaking the removals on its own people. And of course it shows that the land problem is still a huge issue and until land is redistributed in an equitable, fair way — the problem will persist.

I think Promised Land fits into the discussion in that it illuminates the historical reasons for this land inequality and challenges folks on both sides of the issue to think creatively about how to solve it.

Jennifer Arnold, Director, A Small Act

Doc Soup Man: In your mind, what have been some of the most important (or successful) documentaries about Africa?

Jennifer ArnoldJennifer Arnold: When it comes to media portrayals of Africa, I think it is important to show a balance of what is going on. There have been a lot of documentaries about the most disenfranchised, such as refugees and child soldiers. But there are very few documentaries about the successful middle class — and there is a huge middle class in a lot of the countries in Africa. I think a successful documentary shot in Africa is a documentary that shows us something new.

One film I love is Sisters in Law by Kim Longinotto. It is a portrait of these different women in Cameroon who all work in the legal system. It has great subjects. They are witty and strong. They are people that are African, but not "African Characters." Another film that comes to mind is Long Night’s Journey Into Day by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann. It also shows a huge cross section of society. Both of these films are touching and smart and I learned a lot from both.

What are some of your favorite documentaries about Africa? Why?

Arnold: The two I just mentioned come to mind. They are definitely favorites because they’re so rich. There is a new film making festival rounds called Where Are You Taking Me by Kimi Takesue. It is an observational documentary that was shot in Uganda. There is one scene that has a women’s weight lifting competition in Kampala. That was a scene I’d never seen in a film about Africa. I loved it.

With the World Cup happening in South Africa now, a lot of Americans have been exposed to very positive images of Africa, as well as the suggestion that many of Africa’s problems are a thing of the past. Can you tell me a little about what you think of this statement? And can you tell me about how your film fits into this discussion?

Arnold: I don’t think there is a country in the world that doesn’t have problems. No one’s problems are in the past. I do believe that when it comes to addressing issues in Africa (or in any community), it is important to focus on partnership and not charity.

In A Small Act we definitely show some of Kenya’s problems. We follow the story of three young students who can’t afford school. The film shows a few stereotypical images of poverty. But we also follow Chris Mburu and his cousin Jane Wanjiru Muigai. Both of those people are successful Kenyans, who have come back to their communities to address problems such as poverty and lack of access to education. They run a scholarship program in their home village. They are from the area, so of course they understand what the area needs.

One of the things I love about this film is that it focuses on people’s potential more than problems. I really believe that local initiatives and equal partnership can solve a lot of the world’s problems. American audiences need to understand that many Africans don’t need rescuing, they need opportunity, just like anyone else. So if the World Cup provides opportunity, then, great!

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Charlotte Lagarde

    FOREIGNID: 25311
    Looking forward to seeing both films.
    Long Night’s Journey Into Day is by Frances Reid (rather than Reed) and Deborah Hoffmann.
    Also, if I may add the films of the great African director Ousmane Sembene from Senegal are a MUST SEE. He approaches some of the most serious cultural, societal and political issue in Africa with humor.

  • Catherine Jhee

    FOREIGNID: 25315
    Thanks so much for pointing out the error! We’ve just corrected it.

  • Mara Jacobs – Bermuda

    FOREIGNID: 25317
    Really love it that there are so many films available about Africa and it’s beautiful diverse people. Thank you POV for highlighting these great films!
    Speaking of learning something new about Africa… I viewed a South Africa documentary film a few months ago at the Bermuda International Film Festival called ‘I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured – Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope’. It was a real eye opener about South Africa and it’s race problems. I never knew Coloured people even existed in South Africa.
    The Cape Coloured people (the majority population in Cape Town) really struggle with identity and are having a difficult time fitting into the definitions of the ‘new South Africa’. As the one character says “It’s like Apartheid is going into reverse”. It was very informative and emotional. A very different perspective about South Africa.

  • Adolphus McClanahan

    FOREIGNID: 25321
    Looking at this program remind me on what happend to the American Indian. Except they didn’t get their land back but was restricted to “reservations” in areas considered usless, the desert. Even their religious ceremonial grounds turned to national park. Even if the original owners have no skill and wish the land to return to weeds in Africa. IT’s Their Land and their rights. I am a Black American and support the fourty acres and a mule promist IF it applies to the original land owners the Native Indians and not Blacks because we are transplants and not owners.
    Why ios greed and value always justification to over rule right?

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 25339
    It’s so true that the reservations for Native Americans in the U.S. are the predecessors of the homelands in South Africa. Both were injustices that left awfully complicated inheritances, as we saw in South Africa in “Promised Land.” I don’t know if it’s been made, but I’d like to find out if there’s been a parallel doc about the Native American situation.

  • lanyards

    FOREIGNID: 25721
    This is great win for Africa. Not only there were able to present to the world a spectacular world cup football but also presented them selves very highly and promote the need to help the African nation children. Great games, fantastic supports, fabulous arrangements. After a successful show, now the world will pour in their support for a long long time. Thank you for your post.