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Culture and Revolution: The Pan-African Festival of Algiers

Hamza Hamouchene introduces the revolutionary documentary, The Pan-African Festival of Algiers 1969

October 31, 2014
7 min read

Archie SheppA close-up of a woman, followed by a backwards zoom, a man and a woman, both SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation, Namibia) militants, chanting the following words: ‘Our country, our people, will be liberated by our own hands!’ The hands are then held over the following proclamation: ‘Down with Imperialism, Down with Colonialism!’ followed by titles and images of struggles erupting onto the screen with a moving soundtrack: ‘Colonialism, we must fight until we win! Imperialism, we must fight until we win!’

These are the opening scenes of the documentary, the Pan-African Festival of Algiers 1969, which set the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics of the film – reflecting the politics of the African continent in the 60s and 70s. Fifty, sixty years later, these slogans have not lost their relevance in the road to emancipation from imperialism.

The documentary is a collective film directed by William Klein and is about the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in the continent that took place in Algiers in July 1969, seven years after Algeria’s independence. The radical atmosphere of a few summer days is captured in the film, which shows that this Pan-African gathering was a genuine meeting of African cultures united in their denunciations of colonialism and fights for freedom.

With the weight of its recent past – in particular its long struggle for independence that served as a model for several liberation fronts across the globe and given its audacious foreign policy in the 60s and 70s, the Algerian capital was to become a Mecca for all revolutionaries. As Amilcar Cabral announced at a press conference at the margins of festival: ‘Pick a pen and take note: the Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Christians to the Vatican and the national liberation movements to Algiers!’

The festival was impregnated with a revolutionary fervour and Fanon’s ideas around a combative culture that is fuelled by people’s daily struggles were bought to life. Following the footsteps of Fanon, the Beninese philosopher Stanislas Adotevi, shown in the film, points out the limits of the literary and ideological movement of ‘negritude’ – Adotevi states that: ‘The enforced search for traditions, we repeat Fanon’s view, is a banal search for exoticism. Negritude, hollow, vague, ineffectual is an ideology. There is no longer room, in Africa for literature that is outside the revolutionary struggle.’

His speech signals the film’s offensive against the essentialist vision of negritude offered by Senegalese president and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor and a critique of the World Festival of Negro Arts organised in Dakar in 1966 with France’s strong involvement and presence in the person of the French minister of culture Andre Malraux.

The film succeeds in conveying the idea that culture is a form of resistance to domination, a means for mobilisation and consciousness-raising and a medium for the political struggle against colonialism or any other form of oppression. Political leaders – like the first President of Angola Agostinho Neto and Leader of the Guinea-Bissauan independence struggle Amilcar Cabral, were also poets and considered revolution as a cultural action as well as a cultural transformation. They saw culture at the heart of their concerns because they associated it with liberation. They echoed Fanon’s words in the Wretched of the Earth: ‘A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature….It is around the people’s struggles that African-Negro culture takes on substance and not around songs, poems or folklore.’

This message culminates in the film with the affirmation: ‘African culture will be revolutionary or will not be!’ appearing on the screen over a picture of a young guerrilla fighter. His smile embodies the hope of a continent.

The film is in the tradition of militant and political cinema. It succeeds in organically integrating the political and the festive incarnated in bodies, in dances, and in comings together. Moreover, it moves from the recent memory of the Algerian war of independence to others that are on-going, from the struggle against colonialism to the struggle against neo-colonialism, from colonialism to imperialism and from a national situation to the continental. In the words of Agostinho Neto, which appear in the film as an inter-title: ‘If the idea remains, in some of our fighters, that the struggle is against the white man, it must immediately be replaced with the idea of a struggle against colonialism and imperialism, for freedom and for freedom of human beings in the world.’

Despite the scantiness of its distribution (if any) in Africa and the Third World, it remains a reference for African and Afro-American liberation movements that were present in Algeria from Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), Angola (MPLA), Mozambique (FRELIMO), Namibia (SWAPO), South Africa (ANC) and the US (Black Panthers), and shows the emergence of a brotherly and generous Pan-Africanism.

William Klein’s Pan-African Festival of Algiers is a very important film if only as proof of the radical and brotherly atmosphere that dominated Algiers in July 1969. It makes use of archive images but also includes extracts from documentaries such as: Algerie en flames by Rene Vautier (1958) shot in the Algerian maquis, Come Back Africa by Lionel Rogosin (1959), a film about South Africa with the signer Miriam Makeba and her family, Bruno Muel’s Sangha (1967) about diamond mining in the Central African Republic and Madina Boe by Jose Massip (1968) filmed with the liberation movement PAIGC in Guinea Bissau.

The last sequence in the film is particularly gripping when we see the free-form African American saxophonist Archie Shepp in concert with a group of Tuareg musicians. Shepp in a ferocious and uncompromising set broke away from the constraints of the European-derived harmonic system and reconnected with the African roots of Jazz. We witness how both styles of music: Jazz and Gnawi, between tradition and modernity start to intertwine, to find a common rhythm. This scene, played in front of the Black Panther’s militants, was a reaffirmation of the link between African Americans and Africa.

This film demonstrates that Pan-Africanism has been part of the Algerian identity since independence and was a key idea in the 60s and 70s, something overlooked today. Algerians should not disavow this past, we should be proud of it without being imprisoned by it. At a time when the international economic system blames its victims rather than its upholders, diverts any attention away from the mechanisms of domination and resorts to culturalist (often racist) explanations of its failures, it is crucial for us to immerse ourselves in this revolutionary and progressive past.

The vision and lucidity of Klein, Algerians and all the African nations that met in Algiers in 1969 shine through in the film. We need just such clarity of purpose to create a break with the long history of plunder, violence and injustice Africa has endured. This is why it is necessary to overcome the propaganda of an enslaving system that disguise its chains and shackles under benign phrases of the like: ‘the invisible hands of the markets’, ‘the happy globalisation’ or ‘the humanitarian responsibility to protect’. Fanon put it so well: ‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’

‘Imperialism, we shall fight you until we win!’

Dr Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian activist, writer, a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) and a member of Culturama that is organising the screening of the documentary.

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