African Women and Film Spectatorship: An Early History by Beti Ellerson
In the 1967 text, “Le dit du cinéma africain” (The Tale of African Cinema), Amadou Hampâté Bâ recounts the extraordinary history of Mali’s early encounter with cinema revealing an equally fascinating story of an early instance of an African woman and cinematic spectatorship.
He recalls the first film screening held in his native village Bandiagara, Mali in 1908--he was eight years old. The village ulemas met in order to prevent a film projection commanded by the local colonial governor. In their view the notion of a "film" as described by the governor, was a “satanic ghost ready to trick the true believer.” Kadidia Pâté, Amadou Hampâté Bâ's mother, though she did not attend the event, accepted the collective belief of the ulemas.
Though still under the 1908 interdiction of the marabouts of Bandiagara, in 1934, to please her son she agreed to go to the cinema house. Her testimony is among the earliest reflections of an African woman regarding experiences of cinema. An astute cultural reader, Kadidia Pâté likens the movie screen, which mediates the projection of images to guide the viewer, to the divine messenger who intercedes between God and his believers. This is not to say that Kadidia Pâté views cinema as a divine intervention, but rather that at the time, in 1934 as an untrained spectator, she used a spiritual metaphor in her attempt to understand what she was experiencing, as she had been taught by the ulemas to condemn cinema, for its "satanic seduction."
Scholarship on early cinema and spectatorship highlights the near-universal reaction of film viewers in the first decades of the invention of cinema. Whether in westernized environments--rural and urban, or in non-western societies, studies focused on how the viewer experienced the spectacularity of this new technology. While western writers tend to categorize non-westerners as backwards or holding a specific “native” worldview vis-à-vis technology and modernity, Stephen Bottomore gives a more balanced view when analyzing the reception of non-western spectators of early cinema: “these awed reactions on first seeing films may partly be due to sheer unfamiliarity, as much as to traditional beliefs in spirits and the like and the same is probably true of the introduction of other new technologies and media.” Similarly, westerners untrained in the new technology of film were equally awe-struck as well as overwhelmed by certain moving images. The mythical response to the Frères Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de Ciotat is a classic example. Bottomore’s analysis of these reactions underscores the similarities of viewers in general during their encounter with the unprecedented phenomenon of the moving image. On the other hand, Tom Gunning attempts to debunk the myth of the incredulous spectator by focusing on the evolution of visual technologies created for entertainment which have often had as their intent to trick the eye, to create illusion--and this notion may apply to most cultures. Thus, the cinema, wherever it was viewed for the first time, "was an encounter with modernity."
While Amadou Hampâté Bâ relates similar instances of awe and suspicion among the film viewers of Bandiagara at the 1908 film screening, his story provides a rare testimony by an African, especially about early cinema reception. Moreover, his story elaborates both the power relations between French colonials and Africans even at the level of spectatorship, and the negotiation of culture at the intersection of religion and technology.
The most extraordinary element of the story is the total transformation of Kadidia Paté, from a young woman in 1908, sharing the view of the village elders of the evil of cinema, to a mature woman in 1934, an independent thinker having critically engaged its possibilities. Following is an excerpt from “Le dit du cinéma africain"(The Tale of African Cinema) relating Kadidia Paté’s first cinematic experience as recounted by Amadou Hampâté Bâ:
I shall now come to my mother, Kadidia Pâté. She remained under the curse that was thrown in 1908 by the Ulemas of Bandiagara, on the machine that “spat shadows”.
In 1934, she came with me to Bamako where I was employed as the “native” secretary. I asked my mother to go to the cinema with me. Remaining under the influence of the interdiction of 1908 by the marabouts of Bandiagara, my mother shook her ears (a gesture of exorcization that one does with the hands to ward off the curse of the dreadful words that were heard) and says to me:
“Ah! When these diabolic shadows were silent, I refused to watch them, and now that they speak, you want me to see them! I will not go my son, no, I will not go.”
My wife, children and I conspired against my mother. We would not stop until we succeeded at least once to take her to the cinema. This would not be easy. My mother would not be taken in by our games or tricks. But an unexpected occasion presented itself two years later. My younger sister, Aminata, my mother’s favorite daughter, gave birth to a son. I told her about the good news. My mother was so happy that she said:
“Oh my son! My son you have brought me great happiness. Tell me what can I do to return the happiness.”
I took my mother by her word and said:
“Mother, what would make me really happy is if you would go to the cinema with me.”
My mother annoyed, frowned, revealing a quiet irritation. She finally regrouped and said to me, as if to get over this setback:
“Amadou, my son, a worthwhile person is as good as her word. If these words are broken, in other words, if they lose their value in the eyes of others, this person will lose her dignity and will become a good-for-nothing. You’ve got me, so to honor my word, I will go see you wretched “machine that spits images”, whenever you like.”
The most extraordinary characteristic that mother possessed, even more than her great beauty, was a remarkable intelligence, enhanced by a phenomenal memory.
My mother, my wife Baya Diallo and I, finally went to the cinema. My mother followed the film from start to finish. She showed no exterior reaction. She remained impenetrable; it was as if she had seen or heard nothing at all. I was very disappointed, for I had expected, if not some fuss, at least a muted scream from her. But nothing, absolutely nothing at all.
We returned home. My mother went to her room without having ruptured the silence. I was convinced that she had closed her eyes during the entire film in the same way that the distinguished residents of Bandiagara. And thus, she had honored her word by going with me to see the film, but not violating her conscience by refusing to gaze upon those sinful images.
As for me, my venture had failed, my mother had once again shown that she could not be easily taken in.
The next morning, before going to work, as usual, I went to say hello to my mother before leaving.
She gave me her blessings as she does every morning. But she said nothing about my “machine that spits images”; which confirmed what I had surmised: that she had seen nothing while at the cinema.
But after the prayer at sunset, I notice my mother’s favorite servant, Batoma Anta, carrying her prayer mat. She placed it next to mine; my mother came and sat down.
She said to me: “Do you have additional prayers to say at Icha (the last prayer of the day)?
I said: “Mother if you need me, to be at your disposition is the best prayer that I could ever make.”
Before I could say anything else, Mother said: I want you to talk to me about your “thingamajig” from yesterday evening.
I could not begin to say how glad I felt when I realized that my mother had purposely kept silent.
Mother said to me:
“Amadou, my son, yesterday evening I saw a wonderful machine. That man can make such a creation was not what gave me such a pleasant surprise. When someone accomplishes such a miracle, this does not surprise me at all; because for me, this remains in the realm of possibilities. Tierno Bokar, our master, has taught us that Allah has made of man his Representative on earth. This status was not given to man by God without entrusting in him a bit of divine power. For to achieve wonders is a result of God’s power. Therefore, it is not surprising that a being born of this bit of power—in this case, a human—accomplishes these wonders. Rather what would be surprising is if man did not create wonders. I admired this human creation of cinema, but I am not surprised.
I want to thank you for taking me to the cinema. I ask God’s forgiveness. Yesterday I had evidence that the worse error that someone can make on this earth is to condemn before seeing and knowing. I felt how wrong it is to refuse to see, if nothing but to educate oneself.
Tierno Bokar said: Wisdom desires to know all, which is preferable to knowing nothing. One must know the lie in order to separate it from the truth. One must know the good in order to distinguish it from the bad.
In 1908, our well-intentioned holy men and esteemed notaries had declared that the “tiyatra” is a magical machine of diabolic invention. But for me rather, the cinema is a wonderful instructor, an eloquent master who amuses and instructs. The film screening yesterday, diabolic or not, permitted me to find an irrefutable proof to bring into being within myself, something that I had only accepted by absolute confidence in Tiero Bokar who taught it. Up until now, I had no faith that was actually born from a conviction inside myself. Yesterday evening your cinema gave me the private confidence that I had needed spiritually to build my faith on firm ideas and not through passive conformity.
“Mother, what is this thing?” I asked.
After a long moment of silence, she said to me:
For a long time, our marabouts have had serious disagreements. They fiercely debate the question whether there must be a “mediator” between an individual and God. This has brought about serious discussions and has triggered many quarrels. This has propagated disputes in the mosques, right into the homes of close-knit families. In certain regions, there have been bloody clashes.
Modern marabouts who have recently returned from the Orient support the view that people do not need someone else to interact and have contact with the divine or to speak to God. For these marabouts, each person may speak with God directly, without an intermediary.
On the contrary, the old turban-wearing men of the village who are from the old school, uphold the view that a person will always need a mediator between himself and God.
Tierno Bokar is situated between these two tendencies. He has taught that there are cases where we do need a mediator, a person who speaks to God in our behalf, but there are nonetheless cases where we may interact directly with God.
Yesterday, I had perhaps material proof of the possibility of these two cases about which Tierno Bokar has spoken: the direct contact and contact through an intermediary.
When we entered the cinema, before the film, you showed me a large white cloth on which a beam of light was be projected which would then become images that we could look at and recognize. You also showed a small house situated rather high above us. You told me that it was in this room that the machine that spat images was located.
In this little house, there are several openings through which light shines; ending on the large white cloth. As soon as the operator, whom we do not see, begins his work, some noise comes out of the little house. It passes over our head while we are thrust into a deep darkness—a metaphor of our ignorance of the unknown. The light came from the little house in measured portions, in thin lines, rather than all at once.
We were facing the large white cloth. It was only when looking at it that we could clearly see, make out and understand the images that unfolded in front of us. We could see horses run, men walk, and villages emerge. We saw the thick vegetation in the rural area, the blooming countryside, the plane sharply fall away. All of this as if in a long dream, clear and precise, as if dreaming in a waking state.
After having watched the large white cloth for a long time, I wanted, in its absence, to make out with my eyes alone, the images which came from the little house. What happened to me? As soon as I turned directly towards the opening in the little house, the beam of light that came out blinded me. Although the images were in the rays, my eyes were not strong enough to detect it. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, but my ears continued to clearly make out the sound that accompanied the light.
I found myself in the follow situation: First, when I watch the big white cloth, I see the images and hear the sound. I benefit from both the image and sound. But, on the other hand, when I only use my eyes, I only hear the sound. I am not able to stand the powerful light, it blinds me. At the same time that there is some good in it, there are also disadvantages.
This deduction leads me to the conclusion that as long as the cloth is essential to clearly see the images and discern the origin of the sound, a mediator is needed between us and God to understand the divine message.
This is the end of my mother’s story.
Excerpted from “Le dit du cinéma africain" (The Tale of African Cinema) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991). Introduction to "Films ethnographiques sur l'Afrique noire" (Ethnographic Films on Black Africa), UNESCO Catalogue, 1967 (Translated from the French by Beti Ellerson). READ ENGLISH TRANSLATION IN ITS ENTIRETY.
Original version in French - Version originale publié sur l'African Women in Cinema Blog le 26 décembre 2012 sous le titre : La spectatrice africaine et son regard sur le cinéma : une préhistoire
 Muslim scholars trained in Islamic law
 African Muslim holy men
 Name of cinema in Mali, an altered version of the word theatre.
The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the 'train effect' by Stephen Bottomore
UPDATED 26 DECEMBER 2012