The purpose of this paper is to present the case for the relevance of Italian Neo-Realist cinema to contemporary filmmaking in Africa.
Neo-realism flourished in post-war Italy between 1944 and 1952. The scope and breadth of this movement is too vast to describe in one paper therefore the author has chosen to focus on one seminal film in particular: “The Bicycle Thieves” which was released in 1948.
The film was directed by Vittorio De Sica and is based on the novel of the same name by Luigi Bartolini and was adapted for the screen by De Sica’s longtime collaborator Cesare Zavattini. The film was widely acclaimed at the time and received numerous awards including an American Film Academy Award in 1949. (Reference)
That was a long time ago, skeptics, especially those from the MTV generation might ask: “Why should contemporary African filmmakers watch these old films and what relevance could the world of post fascist possibly Italy hold for Africans living in the 21st century?”
This paper will demonstrate that the cinematic artistry and script structure of seminal Neo-realist films, particularly “The Bicycle Thieves”, is rich raw material suitable for study for any filmmakers serious about their art.
Furthermore, the intention of this paper is to argue that on many levels there is a similarity between the urban experience of contemporary Africans and people living through the upheavals and restructuring that defined post war Italy.
The intentions of the author are pragmatic as well as academic. As part of this paper the writer undertook to write a script set in contemporary Africa, which references and pays homage to De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves.” The intention was to demonstrate the universality of the original films powerful themes and story structure.
Please find attached the script in question. The title is “The Boda Boda Thieves,” at this point reader, you could be asking what the bleep is a boda boda… Please read on, all shall be explained, but first I will give an overview of the stepping stones the paper will use to reach it’s conclusion.
This paper will give some necessary background information on the social context of post war Italy that led to the rise to prominence of Italian Neo-Realism and then proceeds to a brief contextual background on the filmmaker De Sica and his contemporaries.
Next is an brief analysis of the dramatic construction of the film in order to demonstrate how the script conforms to the 11 steps of classical plot development. Thereafter follows a discussion the stylistic achievement of the film under the direction of De Sica looking specifically at the special dialectics and his direction of character portrait in relation to social context.
The synthesis of this analysis will show how awareness of plot and its movement, the social comment and attention to subtext that the filmmakers lavished onto “The Bicycle Thieves” are timeless and worthy of study but filmmakers in any age and location.
Having reached this point the paper will expand on the relevance of “the Bicycle Thieves,” specifically to contemporary African filmmakers by drawing on the experience of the writer in his own filmmaking projects as part of the Yes! That’s Us filmmaking collective.
Taking the lessons learnt from an analysis of “The Bicycle Theves,” the author wrote the first draft of a script and proposal for a film which interprets “The Bicycle Thieves” in a contemporary African context.
This original work titled, “The Boda Boda Thieves,” will be outlined as will the major themes it explores and the objectives and intentions that where mapped for it’s structure.
In conclusion, contemporary issues that define Africa now and which are pertinent to the script and its re-write will be briefly explored with an eye to gaining insight as to what African Neo-realism would look like.
In summary the final analysis draws on the steps outlined by the paper to restate the case for the relevance of Italian Neo-realism to contemporary African Filmmakers with specific reference to ‘The Bicycle Thieves.”
Italian Neo-realism was born out of the social and economic ruins of post World War II. It was a time of social re-invention and the resultant unrest. Various ideological factions vied for popularity. Marxism and soviet communism where on the rise and at loggerheads with American free market capitalism and Catholic social doctrine which tended to emphasise an acceptance of the status quo. (Degli-Esposti Reinert, 2001)
“The eclecticism of Italy’s 1948 Constitution is apparent; it is a melange of Catholic social doctrine, Marxism, and welfare state liberalism. It posits “a democratic Republic founded on labor” with “inalienable duties of political, economic, and social solidarity.” Article Four guarantees full employment (in the year of Italy’s highest level of unemployment-estimated at 24 percent) and regulates child labor.
In addition, the Constitution pledges “the material and spiritual progress of society,” a phraseology obviously hammered out between competing forces. The Christian Democrat victory in 1948 over the Popular Front has been attributed in part to the influx of American Marshall Plan aid and the threat of its withdrawal in the event of a Communist-Socialist election victory.
In addition, between 1946 and 1947, UNRRA-CASAS funds were used to build modern, though cramped, housing units (of the type seen in Bicycle Thieves). This measure- along with increased social assistance programs, pensions, and family allowances-helped to stem the tide of social unrest brought about by the revocation of the ban on job dismissals in July 1947.”
After the war, many Italian filmmakers tried to break away from the traditional commercial cinema of pre-war Italy. After the horrors of the war there was an increase concern for humanism and a growing awareness that mainstream Hollywood cinema did not reflect or speak of the lives of the day-to-day world they now lived in. Neo-realism was a re-action against the “white telephone” movies of the previous era. (Celli, 2001)
These films where made without studios, sets and special effects. Whereas mainstream films portrayed he idyllic probems of a rich and indulgent upper-class Neo-realsit films showed ordinary people overcoming everyday problems. Often non-actors where cast alongside professionals. The intention was to communicate life as it really was.
The acclaimed screenplay writer and pioneer Neo-realist Cesare Zavattini noted:
“The true function of cinema is not to tell fables… cinema must tell a reality as if it where a story, there must be no gap between life and what is on the screen.”
(cited by Tomasulo, 1982)
Another pioneers of Neo-realist cinema was Roberto Rosselini. He made a film called “Open City” which was a major hit in its time, both domestically and internationally.
The film was shot in guerilla style, surreptitiously on the streets of Rome about four months after the Germans had evacuated the city.
The film was a raw portrait of everyday life under fascist occupation. So true to life where the mis-en-scene, scenario and acting that many viewers believed the film was made using ‘real life’ documentary footage. (Gallager, 1988)
The film had a massive impact on many other filmmakers not least of all Vittorio De Sicca, and here it is interesting to note that not only would De Sica go on to become perhaps the most well knows of the Italian Neo-Realist directors but her was also the only director of the movement who grew up in poverty. (Celli, 2001)
By the time De Sica made ‘Bicycle Thieves” the fundaments of neo-realist cinema where recognised and established to conform to all or most of the following criterion.
Often the cast was made of of non-professional “characters” or a mix of professional actors and non-professional ‘real people.
Unlike most of the studio produced films from Hollywood at the times, Neo-Realist films distinguished themselves by shooting on location.
Similarly whereas Hollywood and mainstream films where mostly concerned with middleclass and glamorous lives, Neo-Realist filsm addressed real social issues.
Often the solutions to the social problems that the film highlighted where Marxist in leaning.
Neo-realism tends to portray small stories linked together by circumstance.
Neo-realsim lends itself to comedic situations. Scenes which evoke a ‘life is like that response. (reference www.filmreference.com)
In contrast to mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time which Neo-realism can be said to be characterised by what can be termed ‘objective melodrama’ in that the challenges that face the protagonists are bought on by real political and economic events.
So at the opposite end of the spectrum Hollywood films can be described as ‘subjective melodrama’ in that the problems the protagonist has to solve are usually imposed by individual events such as personal relationships. (Hoberman, 1998)
Yes! That’s Us is pioneering a filmmaking technique we call the ‘GueREAListic approach.” Like the paramilitary guerrilla freedom fighters who liberated Africa our film units comprise of small groups of multi-tasking people and a decentralised command chain. We are fast and mobile.
We believe that the digital medium is best suited for filmmakers on a budget in Africa and we have shot on the Red One, Panasonic P2 HD cameras and the Canon 5D. These workflows afford us the latitude we need to monitor quality, continuity as well as the bottom line.
It is important to us to maximise the use of available light and real characters on real locations but this often necessitates extensive use of additional dialogue replacement.
The script was presented at the Prodeur Au Sud workshop hosted by the Three Continents Film Festival in Nates France in 2010.
The script and film proposal was interrogated by a panel of professional script writers, producers and filmmakers. The feedback received has given the project new direction and energy.
What follows is a summary of some of the most pertinent comments.
“You need to define more clearly who your protagonist is. At the moment Goodman is the strongest character but in my opinion by far the most interesting character is the kid, Abel. He is the catalyst for all the action but he disappears from the screen too often. Also the character of the mother. What happens to her. She pops up in the beginning and then disappears. I think she can definitely be developed to the benefit off the script.”
George Walkers Torres, Screenwriter.
“I think you need to say thank you and then goodbye to the Bicycle Thieves and hello to a new look Boda Boda Thieves. I think once you have made that break your original ideas will be much stronger and the script will develop in new and interesting ways that will surprise even you as writers.”
Ferrari Gualberto, Screenwriter.
‘What happened to the General? Such a strong character with so much potential but you loose him after the first act. Also, the kid interests me, who is he, what does he want for his future. Keep in mind your target market. You have access to a very deep subculture and its missing from this version of the script. It’s good but you have forgotten your roots. Take a few steps back and start fresh.”
Claire Lajoumard, Producer Acrobat Films.
“I love it. Work on your budget and finance plan though, it is very vague. But get that right and you have a proposal that has fund me written all over it. Get some seed funding, Re-write but don’t cut the soul out. Call me when you are there and we will see.”
Phillipe Avril, Producer, Unlimited Films
Based on this feedback the writer has set the objective to re-write the script along the following guidelines.
The film will become the son, Abel’s story. Abel also become older, a young man off 19 years.
The deal that Goodman strikes with Mze is that he will put up his cattle as collateral but it is Abel who will be the Boda Boda driver.
It is therefore Able who is responsible for the Boda Boda but when it is stolen Goodman’s reputation is on the line. This sets up a dramatic binary between the father and son as they search the city for the motorbike and allows us to explore the theme of the generation gap that exists ion Africa.
By making Abel the central character we will be able access the raga dancehall subculture and give more punch to the soundtrack, possibly spinning off a sound track for the film of to top East African music acts to help with marketing.
What follows is an analysis of the issues that are topical in Africa now to help give insight to the next phase of the project.
Africa is in transition. One of the main characteristics that distinguish the first and the third world, particularly is the rate of demographic growth.
“According to some estimates, the population of Africa may double between now and the end of the century. As a result of this demographic trend this population is very young. The predominance of young people both in the rural areas and in the popular districts of the big cities raises the problem of their integration into society. Young people cannot be successfully integrated into society unless the institutions concerning them are also well integrated, or unless they participate in a society which functions successfully as a whole. This is not the case in Africa, where society is facing a general crisis, especially in its relations with young people.”
The fastest rate of urbanization in the world is in sub-saharan Africa and most of the economic migrants who pour into the towns and cities from the countryside are young people seeking jobs in mines, on plantations and elsewhere.
In the colonial migrations were often temporary, with the breadwinner periodically returning to their villages. Today migrants most often arrive with their families and settle down permanently. (Council on Foreign Relations, 2009)
Such a huge seismic shift does not come without social crisis. In Africa this is accompanied by a crisis in the family. Whereas in traditional society where patriarchy was the order of the day, modern families tend towards nuclear units which are better equipped to survive the economic rigors of urban life. This has encouraged the development of individualism.
“The gradual disappearance of the patriarchal system is creating authority problems in the family and in society at large, where it formerly cemented a wide range of social relationships.”
(Council on Foreign Relations, 2009)
“Africa’s population is incredibly young. 60% of sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old, and has no memory of the heady independence days. These young people respect, but no longer revere, the heroes of old. They want good governance, education and good jobs in their own countries. Leaders who fail to deliver are rejected, no matter their revolutionary pedigree.”
(World News, May 10, 2010)
Something similar to the youth subcultures that sprung out of the baby boomer generation of the 60’s is happening in Africa. Parents often don’t understand their children and find that the values they hold dear seem to come from different worlds.
Incomprehension prevails between young people and adults, who judge each other in terms of different socio-historical contexts and value systems. But perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same. After all it was Socrates who is attribute to having said:
“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.”
GLOBALIZATION AND HOLLYWOOD’S DOMINANCE
As Africa defines itself it does so in the face of neo-colonialism and globalization. In this aspect there is a marked similarity to the Italian post-war experience under the Marshal plan where the pressure was to liberalise the economy in line with free market capitalism as championed by the United States. (Tomasulo, 1982)
As in Italy, so in Africa part and parcel in securing this hegemony of ideology and market was the proliferation of mainstream Hollywood media.
“The Third World seldom represents itself; it is represented by others, mediated by Hollywood or The New York Times. Many of the misconceptions concerning Third World peoples derive from the long parade of lazy Mexicans, shifty Arabs, savage Africans and exotic Asiatics that have disgraced our movie screens. It is necessary for the Third World to speak for itself through its films.”
You would have to be living under a rock for years to be surprised that 10 out of 10 of the top grossing films at the South African Box office in 2008 where Hollywood films, similarly of the top 25 box office successes of the same year only one was not a mainstream Hollywood film. (Haydn Smith, 2008)
The dominance of Hollywood has only briefly been challenged in in pockets through Africa. Since its Independence, Senegal, especially in the person of Ousmane Sembene, became a strong film producing nation for a time. The seminal films of Sembene such as Black Girl (1966) and Xala (1974) are neo-realist in their approach and tone.
“The film raises significant questions of focalization, point-of-view, and the role of symbolic objects. Xala, meanwhile, is a filmic realization, in brilliant satirical form, of Fanon’s insights concerning “the pitfalls of national consciousness,” especially the process by which an African elite takes over the positions formerly occupied by the colonizers. Sembene, I argue, synthesizes humor and caricature with a frank depiction of reality as experienced by the ‘everyman’ into a dialectical critique of the ills of post Independence Senegal.”
Sadly West African filmmaking reached it zenith and waned after the 70’s largely due to a shift in the European funding model. In its wake and with the advent of digital video technology a new African film industry took root in the form of Nollywood.
“I personally find that a lot of the movies that are made for film festivals are not the kind of movies that people want to watch. Francophone films? Even at film festivals, they really don’t do very well. It’s too … it’s movies as an art form. It’s not entertainment for Africans. If you think about the amount of money that has been pumped into the Francophone film industry- should have been making big African films this whole time! But they’re not interested. So that’s what Nigeria can really beat its chest about: we do films for our people. And we’ve generated interest all over the world.Just look on the Internet. I remember this article that I saw. Bye bye, Hollywood. Bye bye, Bollywood. Now it’s Nollywood.” (Jackobs, 2004)
“You know, once upon a time the French government supported arty films in Francophone countries. But now the French Cultural Centre here in Nigeria wants to bring French moviemakers here to study our methods. They cannot understand how we can make a movie in seven days-and still enjoy lunchtime.” (Ejoro, 2004)
In the authors opinion, as an important film movement that defined a generation of filmmakers and left its mark on subsequent movements, Neo-realism will always have relevance and be worthy of study.
“The most influential movement in film history consisted of about 20 movies produced between 1944 and 1952. Italian neorealism was the original new wave. The inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes, Satyajit Ray and Ousmane Sembene, André Bazin and cinema verite, neorealism was understood as a double renaissance—both the medium’s post-World War II rebirth and a means for representing human experience outside the conventions of the Hollywood entertainment film.” (J. Hoberman, 1998)
Bazin appreciated it as “pure cinema… No more actors, no more story, no more sets… the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality.” (Hoberman, 1998)
In Summary my argument is not that the social conditions on the African continent are identical to post-war Italy but that they are similar in that Africa is in the process of re-inventing itself after the dust has settled on post-colonial eras, the various wars of independence and the emergence of true democracy.
If we are to move towards claiming Neo-realism for African filmmakers we need to show an awreness of the pertinent social issues, just as the Italian Neo-realist did in the 40’s and 50’s.
As last word I chose an anecdote about Neo-realism, which may also be applied to Nollywood. When Hollywood movie mogul Sam Goldwyn heard about the international box-office success of the neorealist films, he called in all his top producers, writers, and directors and urged them to make films in the spirit of the Italians. His parting words were, “And remember: make them look cheap – and I don’t care how much it costs!”