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Alex's Wedding Front Cover

Chronicle of a rather particular afternoon during which the lives of three people change dramatically: Alex, the husband, goes to his in-laws’ to bring home his second wife. Elise, Alex’s childhood sweetheart and first wife, accompanies him—as she must, according to tradition. And Josephine, the young bride, leaves her parents to begin a new life.

Pressed into service by a neighbor, Jean-Marie Teno turns what might have been a typical wedding video into a subtle and intimate portrait of polygamy in contemporary Cameroon. Filming the celebration in great cultural detail, Teno is also implicated in the interpersonal drama of the welcoming of the second wife into an already established household. Members of Alex’s family and his friends sing songs about the harmony that the new wife, Josephine, will bring, but the silence of Elise, the first wife, and the tears of Josephine herself, force spectators to imagine how Alex and his wives will negotiate the new arrangements.

Those in attendance speak directly to the camera, congratulating the newlyweds and later describing their attitudes toward polygamy. Alex’s friends defend the practice as, alternately, an expression of cultural rights, as tacit resistance to European mores, or as the result of man’s nature. Elise, Alex’s first wife refuses to speak to Teno, who wants to give her a chance to express the pain she clearly feels. While the men assert that god gave man a sword sharpened on both sides to use, Elise sardonically agrees that yes, and he must then cut down everything in his path and lose no time doing so. Teno’s quiet presence gradually reveals the complex set of expectations in which each of the players is caught, including the filmmaker. Though the viewer understands Teno’s position on the matter, his personal voice adds moral force to his sensitively-delivered critique of polygamy. Alex’s Wedding, accomplished with respectful camerawork and an evenhanded treatment of all involved, is a moving call to debate.

I was concerned about respecting people’s choices and didn’t want to be accusatory. I positioned myself as an observer, capturing the reality of the event—the official speeches and traditional rituals, as well as the unspoken pain that was palpable throughout the evening. The film presents a ceremony ostensibly in celebration of love, but during which ‘duty’ and ‘submission’ were the preferred words.

Jean-Marie Teno