I sense some tension in the group around whether or not we can take melodrama seriously. This is a pity since it is an important issue when considering films made by western filmmakers about stories set in African countries. Chocolat creates a familiar colonial narrative about the relationship between a white woman (the coloniser) and a black man (the colonised). This is the basis for the colonial melodrama which focuses on the emotionally explosive mix of sex and race. Interestingly, it more often features a white woman and black man than a black woman and white man — perhaps because the former is more threatening to the colonial/settler family. I’m not suggesting that Claire Denis sets out to make a colonial melodrama, but she consciously chooses its narrative and works to oppose it stylistically from what I saw in the extracts. In the films I have seen by African filmmakers, the colonial relationship is not dealt with as an emotional relationship — the colonists are simply there as representatives of oppression. There are several African films (mostly made by men, I’ve only seen one film by an African woman) which focus on the women as central characters and these are often careful to explore the status of women within distinct local communities.
Kim Longinotto attempts not to impose her sense of narrative on the events she records, even if she has to select and edit from her material. The melodrama that I found inherent in the court proceedings seemed to me to come from the performances of both the lawyers and their clients. Longinotto’s feel for the universal human stories she witnessed is certainly impressive, but I wonder how much her film was still an outsider’s view. I thought that the Denis and Longinotto extracts were very useful in posing questions about how women are presented in ‘African stories’.
If anyone is interested in the kinds of films which circulate in West Africa as part of Nollywood, there is an interesting UK centre for ‘Nollywood Studies‘ which offers a number of fascinating links.