SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

In French with English subtitles (2019, running time 1 hr 7m)

In October 2014 riots broke out in the West African country Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest. Demonstrators attacked government and parliamentary buildings, the presidential palace and the state television headquarters in the capital, Ouagadougou. Some 30 people were killed, according to local reports. On 31 October President Blaise Compaoré, whose dictatorial regime had lasted 27 years, announced his departure from office. He subsequently fled to Côte d’Ivoire, and democratic elections were eventually able to take place.

This intimate documentary, On a le temps pour nous (Time is on our side), written and directed by Katy Lena Ndiaye, is filmed several years after the hope, anger and idealism of the 2014 uprising have faded. Interspersed with footage of key scenes from the dramatic events of 2014, we follow the life of rapper and political activist Serge Bambara (aka Smockey – I’ve had to bite back an urge to anglicise it to Smokey), co-founder of the ‘Balai Citoyen’ (Civic Broom) movement.

Bambara was thus one of the principal architects of the popular movement that brought about the change of regime, fuelling rebellion among a generation of young people. Burkina Faso is a young country anyway, with only 7% of the population being over the age of 55.

Bambara’s political message echoes the ideology of the country’s former socialist revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, whose death, orchestrated by a Compaoré-led coup in 1987, ushered in decades of repressive dictatorship.

Although the documentary is intensely, even intimidatingly, alpha male-orientated, Ndiaye evidently succeeded in gaining Smockey’s trust and respect in order to embed herself within his social environment. In contrast, Ndiaye’s most well-known work is the 2007 documentary film En attendant les hommes (Waiting for Men), which focuses on female muralists in Mauritania. What remains the same in both, it seems, is Ndiaye’s talent for drawing out the inner motivations of her subjects.

It was easy to see why people would get behind Smockey, who embodies a heady mix of a magnetic stage presence, an emphatic rap message, banging rhythms and absolute political conviction. I suppose its a demonstration of the unwavering self-belief and inspirational rhetoric that powers support for populist politicians throughout the world. I’ve a doe-eyed, often misguided, weakness for charisma, but that notwithstanding I’d certainly much rather have listened to Smockey rapping than the noxious Trump pontificating at one of his rallies.

Although Compaoré has been toppled, the country is still riven by political division, together with the rising impact of political Islam. While Smockey acknowledges that he is not hugely in favour of the new Government, he also accepts that it was elected by the people, for the people, and as a result it is not his place to seek to unseat it.

Smockey is an educated man, who was brought up in a privileged milieu, the son of a former minister and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) official. His mother was French, and Bambara was able to attend university in Paris. The contrast with the typical life of a Burkinabé (citizen of Burkina Faso) is stark. The country’s first higher education institution was built in 1974, and the overall literacy rate is less than 50%.

We learn, too, during an emotionally unguarded moment, that Bambara’s father was permanently changed by spending two years under house arrest on what sound to have been trumped-up charges: “it broke him … and it broke his family … oui.”

Bambara quotes the Martinique-born political philosopher Frantz Fanon:

Man on earth is nothing if he’s not slave to a cause, that of the people, that of justice, that of freedom

These sound like words Bambara might have composed himself, as his own rhetoric is so electrifying. In one late scene he reaches out to people, effectively saying migration is not the answer the country’s woes, and that if people are brave enough to leave Burkina Faso, they are brave enough to stay.

If you have the capacity to bear all of this suffering, to get to the other side, to cross the Mediterranean, you can stay and fight with us here … Happiness is not Las Vegas, it’s not Paris, it’s not Hong Kong or any of those places we see on TV. Paradise is here in Burkina Faso.

The film closes with the lyrics of Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, who Smockey joins on stage, as he pelts out his song “Ils ont l’argent mais on a le temp” (“they have the money but we have the time“). If there was ever a song that screams at someone like myself to check my privilege, this must be it, as Awadi raps “they have the watches, but we have the time“.

I have a personal and professional fascination with the power of political rhetoric to rouse a populace, and this is a documentary that is never less than compelling, sometimes thrillingly so.

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