A Happy funeral tour in Cameroon March 24, 2011
This story can be summarized in many ways.
1) A Canadian guy falls in love with a slightly unpredictable French girl and is ready to follow her to the end of the world. Actually, he only has to go to Cameroon. For his courage, the lad will have the Princess and a Great Adventure.
2) By coincidence of many different things, a young filmmaker arrives to Cameroon. He discovers that the local tribe there has interesting funeral customs, different of our own, and decides to use this visually attractive material for making an ethnographic film. Mama Africa opens herself up in bright colours and joyful dance, and the young man senses a Great Chance. He persuades his professional filmmaker-friends to come down there with a proper equipment and together they make a film.
3) A young Jew needs to travel far from home and place himself into a different context of his everyday life, in order to understand what his Jewish roots and customs really mean for him. Whether his dead grandfather's soul who visits him can be explained by the African animist culture? Whether he himself will find a community that can appreciate the contact with the souls a bit more than do Canada or France, where the spiritual talk is usually labelled as awkward?
In any case, one thing is clear: this is a film which plays with the author's position and gives a not purely traditional view on death and on farewell to the dead. Despite the joyful tone and the author's self-searching in the foreground of the story, the film gives a fair amount of information about the funeral customs in Cameroon. The author is in the picture himself quite a lot, as he tries to take part in the traditional dances and mask wearings, balancing between sincerity, ridiculousness, participating observation, fooling around, and intensive searching for a dialogue. Fast-paced Jewish music on the background of African scenery creates an intensely divided emotion: this is a clever way for showing how the researcher is always forced to carry his own cultural heritage with him on the “field” as a heavy burden.
Certainly, there is a danger, in the film, to become just a variation on the subject of "white man and his ego trip in the black africa," but for me, this balancing on the invisible limit drives the film to the „right“ side. As the author comments after the film, by Skype, to the audience of Athena cinema, he is conscious about that danger and says that the film has lost many screening opportunities because of its joyful self-exposure: these few festivals who are interested in including Africa in their programme, are usually scared by reading the film introduction, of a yet another White Man's Story, and reject the film immediately. But the author's position in this film isn't really so black-and-white at all, as it may seem on the first look.
And what do we learn about the funeral customs and relationships of the dead and the alive in this small ethnic group in Cameroon? Pretty much, actually. For example, the farewell ceremony for the deceased father can only be held after his parents and grandparents have been sent away honourably, etc. „In Europe and Canada, you have a white-bearded man to mediate with God, but we have our dead ancestors instead. If I have a problem, then why should I go to a stranger to ask help from God, if my dead father is sitting right next to God and can ask him what I need much quicker?
There are quite a few funny things that happen due to translation problems in this film, as well. The Canadian author's French is not that good sometimes, and this means that the knots of misunderstanding between cultures get reinforced on the level of language. One of the most remarkable examples of this is when a local man asks from the film author and his girlfriend, whether the French and Canadian funeral customs are similar to the ones in Cameroon. Matthew answers: Oui mais pas du tout, meaning, yes but not in every aspect, but really saying – yes, but actually, not at all. By accident, this mistranslation brings out a much more adequate answer, which could fit to many of the cultural questions raised by the film.
Mele Pesti, PhD student of cultural studies
Matthew Lancit on Skype after the screening