During the month of December, 1997, I witnessed several troubling events in Cameroon: In my village a young boy was nearly lynched by mob “justice” in a lawless state. I went to a wedding and learned that, by law, the husband is the ruler of the family. A highly respected journalist was imprisoned without a trial for writing an article about the health of the president.
While seemingly unrelated, these incidents bear witness to disturbing tendencies in Cameroon today: they are all point to the ways in which the abuse of power permeates everyday life in an authoritarian society.
CHIEF! brings these events together to allow us to reflect upon the current state of Cameroonian society with its hierarchies, inequalities and lack of respect for human rights–all the by-products of a dictatorship.
We all know that dictators act like all powerful chiefs, marshalling the law to their own ends, ruling with total impunity, pillaging and plundering their nations’ wealth, diverting millions into Swiss bank accounts, enriching themselves endlessly at the expense of their countries’ miserable populations.
CHIEF! asks us to see beyond the cult of personality created by the dictator, allowing us to that a dictatorship is also a system with a logic, a vast machinery of corruption and irresponsibility, a state of mind that pervades an entire population. In every town, office, police station, institution we find autocratic chiefs ruling over their fiefdoms, extorting from their subordinates. CHIEF! examines how the authoritarian model is replicated from top to bottom, transforming all social exchanges into relationships of power and inequality.
With poetry and irony, Homage celebrates the playfulness of life with its share of difficulties and tragedy in Bafoussam, Teno’s hometown in Western Cameroon. One of the best piece of Autobiography in visual arts.
- Forum Section of the Berlinale 1999 (Germany)
- FESPACO 1999 Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
- Visions du Reel 1999 Nyon (Switzerland)
- San Francisco Int. Film Festival 1999
- Vues D’Afriques Montreal 1999
- London Film Festival
Short Film Prize at Nyon Film Festival 1985 (Switzerland)
Best Short Film Prize at Cinema du Reel 1986 (France)
Best Short Film at Vues d’Afrique Montreal 1987 (Canada)
Very powerful and eloquent… It underscores, in a neat presentation, the challenges Africa faces in establishing rights and accountability at the village level, between the sexes and for persons of power – be they traditional or political.
Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International
A compelling indictment of patriarchy and the powerful – and a call for a continuing struggle for human rights.
William G. Martin, Binghamton University
Chef! is a brisk and focused look at a nation struggling uphill against corruption and archaic social norms. Programmers attuned to women’s, African and political activist issues will find this a worthy item.
Chef! opens to images of people in traditional ceremonial robes and western-styled business suits heading towards a cultural exhibition of ancient tribal rhythms and dances, the road towards the event anachronistically demarcated by a large Fanta corporate sponsorship banner that frames the main entrance. The auspicious occasion is the unveiling of a monument in commemoration of Kamga Joseph II, the western-friendly ancestral chief of the village of Bandjoun (and ancestor of filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno), who ruled one of the largest villages in western Cameroon at the turn of the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, the man “who tried to straddle the two worlds” initiated the path towards the modernization of the village by imposing European culture even as he sought to retain ancestral traditions. Now, decades later, it is in this curious spectacle of cultural celebration turned pro-government rally – where government officials mingled freely with other village leaders to illustrate the intrinsically incestuous, cultural fraternity of “chefs” (chiefs) – coupled with the filmmaker’s coincidental purchase of a souvenir calendar written in the regional language of Ghomala that outlines the unwritten, traditional “Rules of the Husband in his Home” (that anoints every man as the indisputable chief of the household) that Teno seeks to examine the conflicted legacy of this double-edged policy in modern-day Cameroon where half of the population are “chiefs” according to ancestral tradition, leading to an inhumane cycle of the nation’s collective imprisonment by chiefs who defer only to higher chiefs, unaccountable to the very people over whom they govern.
An initial glimpse of this residual legacy that has contributed to a pervasive cultural anachronism that has undermined social progress is seen in the roadside capture by a vigilante mob on the morning after the celebration of a young chicken thief who, without the presence of Teno and his camera, would have undoubtedly been beaten to death. With the mob persuaded by a village elder to instead take the young boy to the village chief (who, in the meantime, has been forced to strip off his clothes (as dictated by ancient tradition) before starting on his humiliating public march), the pattern of self-absolution, blind deference to authority, and inconsistent, open-ended justice continues when the chief is reluctant to personally sanction the boy’s beating, and instead decides to send him to the police station, rationalizing that only the police are empowered to conduct such a beating with impunity.
Another manifestation is revealed in an interview with the director of a women’s crisis centre who remarks that Cameroon is still governed by an archaic combination of the French Civil Code of 1804 (long after the French, themselves, have updated the code) and unwritten, ancestral tradition defined by a patriarchal society, pointing out inconsistent legal definitions such as the notion that a man can only be is only guilty of adultery if it is committed in his own home, while a woman can be guilty of committing adultery anywhere. Moreover, with young girls (often from poor, provincial families) entering into undocumented, traditional marriages rather than civil marriages, many discover too late that they (and their children) do not have any legal rights to property or support when their husbands drive them away from their homes years later, since they are not considered legally married.
The concluding example is illustrated through the inner workings of the justice system, as seen through the eyes of Pius Njawé, editor of the independent publication, Le Messager, who had run afoul with the government after reporting on President Paul Biya’s abrupt departure from a soccer match. Encountering a justice system rife with corruption (such as a codified bribery schedule to ensure even the simple procedural act of filing formal charges), Njawé becomes a first-hand witness to the systematic imprisonment of the poor and disenfranchised (who cannot afford to pay the bribes and therefore, languish in jails without ever receiving a trial).
Téno’s complex and organic, yet cohesive and insightful essay is an incisive portrait of the culturally ingrained, self-destructive fusion of perpetuated, inhumane (and patriarchal) ancestral traditions and obsolete, subjugative colonial-era civil codes that continue to enable the political mechanism of dictatorships, widespread corruption, social stratification, and human rights violation. Inevitably, what emerges in Téno’s penetrating examination, is not only of the social, political, and economic malaise that continues to plague Cameroonian contemporary history under the “peaceful democracy” pyramidal power structure of the presidency, but also reflects the endemic state of many post-colonial African countries at the end of the twentieth century. As the filmmaker similarly (and incisively) articulates in his earlier documentary Africa, I Will Fleece You, native empowerment comes, not from archaic (and increasingly arcane) birthright self-anointments of chiefdom, but from education, social awareness, and humanity.
Recently, I watched Homage and was amazed by the lyrical ambiance and the freedom that exhaled from this film I directed 25 years ago; Most of the themes I’ve been addressing in my films were already present in this first filmic essay and it made me realize the long and winding road that led me to being able to say I (first person) in my films.