Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and the Birth of African Cinema

Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and the Birth of African Cinema

Birago Diop was a brilliant high-school student in Senegal. During his final exam, he made the unusual mistake of misconjugating a French verb, an error that was to prove fateful for his career. With a wry, self-deprecating smile past the camera, Diop, now an acclaimed poet and short-story writer, declares that what happened to him followed “the law of destiny.” The professional paths open to colonial students in the French system were narrow: they could become teachers if they passed a critical test, or doctors or civil servants if they didn’t. Diop went on to study veterinary medicine in France, and his collections are filled with animal tales.

Sitting behind the camera and listening to this story in Birago Diop, conteur (1981), Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, the Beninese-Senegalese filmmaker, historian, critic, and bureaucrat, must have heard something of his own travails. The two men, both outstanding artists, achieved renown despite the constricting educational system of the French colonies. As African American writer James Baldwin once pointed out with regard to Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet of Négritude, colonialism was responsible for creating the same intellectuals who would undermine it. Vieyra, in fact, ran a greater risk of assimilation than Diop.

Born in 1925 in Porto-Novo, Benin, he was ten when his parents sent him to France to study. He did not return home until the age of twenty-five, when he fell ill with tuberculosis. Back in France in the early 1950s, he underwent an operation on his lungs. There are conflicting stories about his reasons, but Vieyra switched from his chosen academic field and wound up enrolling instead in the famous Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC). According to his son Stéphane, Vieyra had had an early experience with cinema, as an extra in Claude Autant-Lara’s Devil in the Flesh (1947), and recalled as unforgettable the moment when Gérard Philipe was called to step onto the set. As fate would have it, Vieyra’s time at IDHEC made him not only the first African student to enroll in the school, but also among the first to make a film about the African experience in Europe.

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