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34th Durban International Film Festival, 2013

Cameroonian Political Film Wows DIFF
By Polly Kamukama

The President
space.
"The President" (Jean-Pierre Bekolo)

Shot in a savvy style that combines realism and fiction, the 65-minute feature is a satirical attack on President Paul Biya whose 31-year reign has come under serious international scrutiny. He is accused of abetting polarization, fueling corruption and, above all, being a punitive dictator with no compromise to opposition.

The film chronicles a political crisis in Cameroon following the disappearance of the president (Gerard Essomba) shortly before national elections. It is later revealed the president has taken a self-imposed exile, upon realization he won't survive people power.

And it is against this dark picture and general disgruntlement of Cameroonians that revolutionary filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, decided to set The President (Le President), the latest of his critically acclaimed filmography.

But it came with a price. The French language film has been denied screening at most platforms in Cameroon, and its cast and crew continue to endure persecution. Thankfully, a number of international film festivals are willing to screen it. At the 34th DIFF, the film has blessed audiences with a humorous-but-serious analysis of Cameroon's political landscape.

With the despot figure gone, young Cameroonians for the first time have a right to voice their grievances, ranging from lack of an education, unemployment, poverty, poor health system and arrogance of the ruling government.

These injustices are mainly told through the media, with a comical journalist named Jo Woo'du taking the lead in mocking the estranged president on national TV. Another key figure in the film is real life Cameroonian rapper, Velsero, who is depicted challenging the president on good governance during a bizarre one-on-one meeting held in a dilapidated inner city neighborhood.

Other integral characters in the film are political prisoners, including the president's former confidant, who was sent to the coolers the moment he started questioning his friend's unconstitutional policies.

Also to look out for is the film's strong portrayal of female characters — including the president's ex-wife and chief advisor — as embodiments of change, wisdom, courage and democracy.

The film comes strong on the use of music with Velsero's razor-sharp lyrics putting President Biya's governance to public scrutiny. In one of the recurrent songs, the young artiste sings about a population that is tired of a leader who never fulfilled his pledge of healing Cameroon from its colonial hangovers.

"... Enough is enough... Mr. the President, your system is weak. Let me tell you what the young people are thinking... You are said to be the lion... and their dream is to kill the lion."

But the director's over-usage of satire and humour makes the movie appear more like a dark comedy than a serious assessment of a head of state who has been accused of rigging elections to stay in power.

The film features a recurrent background noise of people and automobiles, reminiscent of the crowded Yaoundé streets. The noise is also symbolic of a new and vibrant Cameroon after the fall of the president. On the other hand, this background noise enhances the combination between form and content of The President. Everything seems to be real.

The dominance of wide angle documentary-style shots, complete with dark grim lighting, however gives The President surreal realism that is reflective of the situation in Cameroon, where university graduates earn peanuts riding commuter motorbikes on ravaged city roads.

While this docu-fiction is as an artwork in its own sake, it can also be seen as a call for change in the Cameroonian socio-political landscape. Maybe that's why it's under a soft and nameless censorship in Paul Biya's country.

Polly Kamukama
© FIPRESCI 2013

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Durban 2013

bullet. Index
bullet. Talent Press
bullet. Durban Film Feast Begins
bullet. Two Men and a Wedding
bullet. Nairobi Half Life
bullet. The Sound of Movies
bullet. Great Expectations
bullet. World in Three Colours
bullet. Cameroonian Political
   Film Wows DIFF
bullet. The Film Revolution
bullet. Emperor, Spirit, Boy
bullet. Talents Get Tips
bullet. Re-educating the Public