Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Written by Chad
So we find ourselves at a funeral, which on this continent isn't always the glum sort of get together you'd expect. This one more closely resembles a college kegger than a solemn church service, and a quick scan confirms that Tana’s the only one grieving. Amidst all the drink and dance, we're immediately approached by a well-fed man in coke bottle glasses who is noticeably giddy as he introduces himself. Mamadou might just be the biggest fan of America pop culture I've met here, and there are plenty of contenders to that title. We slouch into a bench as he positions his chair so close that his knees touch ours.
For the first half hour, he proves his mastery of United States geography by systematically listing the 48 contiguous states and whether they're close to Canada or Mexico. Half an hour. Though he hasn't yet left West Africa, he tells us which states are by far the best: Utah, Montana, and Michigan for some reason. I start to make a case for Virginia, but missing nary a beat he launches into another half hour of naming state capitals. He's nonchalantly lecturing us on so many rapid-fire facts that it activates a subconscious anxiety to take notes for the exam later. He then recites his definitive list of greatest Western film titles and the best actors of all time.
Taking home highest honors on Mamadou's list are standard-fare action movie heroes, such as Denzel Washington, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and the inexplicable odd man out Gregory Peck. Save for the occasional spaghetti western, action movies are the sole genre that survives the trip from Hollywood to Burkina—chick flicks and horror movies are presumably parachuted into the Atlantic. Burkina also draws from the East too: for instance, on a Rakieta bus trip I once watched a Chinese action thriller called So Close where two unwieldy twin sisters throw acid on the faces of businessmen. Not sure why they played it, because I was the only passenger capable of reading the English subtitles. I've considered that perhaps these action movies have such a deep-rooted monopoly here because they're the only genre foisted upon the public by a panel of evil multinational film industry bigwigs. The more likely reason for their appeal, though, is that all the chase scenes, explosions, and near-constant peril strike a chord with a key demographic, the male manual laborer crowd.
The mood never strikes my neighbors to cuddle up with a pillow and unwind to a Nicholas Sparks romance—the base requirements for entertainment are bombshells and bloodshed. And that's why action movie heroes with their machismo and jiu jitsu maneuvers have an exponentially expanding fan base in Burkina that’s mounting as fast as the electric grid let's it. I’m sure if grocery stores could afford to set up camp in Banfora, you’d see nothing but scowling action movie celebrities on magazine covers at checkout. That’s why, according to Mamadou, it was a big no no for Eddie Murphy to sleep with Sylvester Stallone’s wife. Despite his roots, the comedian will be forever shunned by African moviegoers. Whereas this kind of tabloid gossip crops up around water coolers in American offices, African farmers might exchange such news over a canteen break in the shade of a baobab.
In any case, the fictionalized badassery of our own homegrown muscle men, stealthy FBI agents, and heavyweight wrestlers skew local perceptions of American culture. This manifests in strange ways. As I'm walking down a city street, a local might notice my nationality and randomly blurt out "JACK BAUER!" Since it's not a complete sentence, I'm left to fill in the blanks: does he think I'm that actor and wants my autograph? I knew I could've hit it big in L.A... This remark catches me off guard, but not as much as when I'm strolling along only to hear the non sequitur "Osama bin Laden" proclaimed in my direction. In this case, either he's showing off his priviness to current events or I need to shave.
One time in an attempt to diversify local tastes, we tried to introduce the family movie genre to some of Anne’s neighbor kids, but they just scratched their heads the entire movie. Despite our translating every award-winning scene of the Pixar flick Up, the little ones repeatedly questioned if all the characters were dead. They were too bewildered to care about narrative closure, so halfway through we gave up and went outside.
A few months ago we went to a village movie theater on the far side of town, reminiscent of an old-timey picture show at the drive in. The admission fee of 15 cents reminded me of mid-twentieth century America, too—no ticket stubs or turnstiles and it's a thousand percent less than the 15 dollar expense of a modern 3D blockbuster. Adama, the father of one of Tana's girl's campers, had brought in a dumptrucksworth of cement and built an auditorium, complete with a silver screen, generator, and projector. It's an odd sight amongst the crumbling mudhuts surrounding the perimeter. There's no ceiling and the walls are made of straw, so ticket sales are diminished by storms and big bad wolves.
The way you find out what's playing is to bike through Adama's courtyard and read whatever DVD case is dangling by a string from the big shea tree. This is their grand marquis. When we arrived, the place was packed for tonight's feature: a C-list Hollywood action movie about a prisoner-turned-pro-boxer's rise to claim the championship title. Every line and plot point was incurably cliché-stricken, almost as though the writer was pathologically obligated to bore me. Good thing I was the only one unenthused in the house—the audience ate it up while mosquitoes did the same to us.
Although the only silver screen imports to speak of are fast-paced action motion pictures, locally produced cinema is a whole different animal. After a year of bus trips to and fro, here are the common threads I've gleaned from Burkinabe blockbusters:
- Only two people can be in a scene in a given moment. Burkinabe script writers seem to be most comfortable writing dialogue between two people. Locally filmed daytime soap operas, such as Célibatorium, are notorious for this.
- Humor is often derived from situations that empower women. In A Woman Not Like the Others, a wife decides she wants to take two husbands, shattering the cultural norm that only a man can be the beneficiary of polygamy. The whole bus cracks up in the scene where the man is crying on his knees, clutching his wife's pair of pink panties.
- Aspects of movement and choreography are high quality. This is a culture where toddlers begin to dance at village events as soon as they can toddle, so to my eye everybody here seems much more graceful and in control of their own bodies than us bumbling, clumsy Americans. The kinesthetic prowess of actors and actresses are often a focal point of scenes. Some of the physical comedy gags remind me of Mr. Bean or The Three Stooges.
- Magic is a key plot device, often edited in using low budget special effects. In Ghana, Luis, Doug, and I were riveted by a Ghanaian film series on our bus trip to Kumasi. For 7 hours, we watched parts I through IV of Evil Soul, a movie about a jealous woman who uses black magic to try to win the heart of her dreamboat man-crush while manipulating and ruining the life of poor Juliet. Side note: We saw advertisements all over Ghana for a movie called Black Pope but never saw it on bus rides.
- Sometimes the story has no point. There isn't always some grand overarching takeaway or moral lesson, as in Aesop's fables. For example, in one performance, a dude was jealous of his friend, so he went to a shaman, and the shaman broke a traditional gourd bowl to try to kill his friend. Later the dude was doing his daily prayers and the ghost of his friend visited him, so the dude went crazy. At the end of his crazy life, the ghost visited him again and the dude died.
I have all the time in the developing world to tell you more on this topic, but I'm told it's boring to go on and on paraphrasing low-budg movies, so Fade out. Cue credits.
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