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CHEF! and LA TETE DANS LES NUAGES
CHEF! and LA TETE DANS LES NUAGES Bookmark and Share

98 minutes, 2 titles on 1 cassette, 1999 and 1994, Cameroon
Producer/Director: Jean-Marie Teno
in French with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
CRITICAL COMMENT
"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 USA
"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."
Variety

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Jean-Marie Teno's two provocative new documentaries Chef! and La tÍte dans les nuages together with his earlier Afrique, je te plumerai offer the most searching critiques available on film of the political and economic stagnation besetting many African states. At the same time, he introduces us to grassroots forces in civil society and the informal economy which are usually overlooked by the Western media but which could point the way towards vigorous democratic development in Africa.
In his most recent film, Chef!, Teno locates the roots of Africa's authoritarian regimes in the patriarchal family, reinforced by traditional kingship and the colonial experience. Teno insists that this film was not planned but imposed itself on him during a visit to his ancestral village, Bandjoun, in the Ghomala speaking region of Western Cameroon. He had gone to film dances dedicating a monument to King Kamga Joseph II, the filmmakers' great grand uncle, but the ceremony soon turned into a celebration of one-man rule, in particular Cameroonian President Paul Biya's.

The next day Teno encountered a vigilante mob kicking and screaming at a 16-year-old boy who had stolen some chickens. It is easy to imagine what might have developed if the filmmaker and his camera had not been present. Teno comments "The paradox of this country is that the national sport - far more popular than soccer - is the plundering of resources by our heads and chiefs, yet a youth was nearly lynched for stealing one hen and four chicks." Teno wonders if the powerless in the face of massive injustice take out their rage on those less powerful than themselves.

A few hours after this, incident Teno bought a souvenir calendar listing "the rules and regulations of the husband in his home." These included: "The husband is always chief - even in bed;" " If the husband strikes the wife while visitors are present, she must smile and pretend that nothing has happened; etc. Teno wryly observes that if every husband is a chief then Cameroon is a nation of 7 million chiefs. The director of the Association for the End of Violence to Women points out that the husbands' dominance over his wife is guaranteed not only by tradition but the French Civil Code of 1804 still operative in Cameroon though long since revised in France itself.

Teno interviews a number of Cameroonian human rights activists who denounce "a political culture of irresponsibility granting those in power complete impunity and no accountability." President Paul Biya has disbanded most civic movements to protect what he calls "Cameroonian style" or "peaceful democracy." For example, in December 1997 Pius Njawe, editor of an opposition news weekly, Le Messenger, was arrested simply for asking if the President had left a football match because of ill health. Njawe was condemned to two years imprisonment in the horrifying, disease-ridden Newbell prison where 150 prisoners are crowded into 30' by 40' cells stacked three deep without a sewage system or adequate food. In prison, Njawe learned there was a fixed schedule of bribes that needed to be paid even to get a trial date; he came to perceive the Ministry of Justice as a giant business enterprise selling freedom.

Teno investigates the ties between unaccountable government and an unproductive economy in La tÍte dans les Nuages. Kleptocracy has become an accepted fact of Cameroonian life described by the proverb: "The goat grazes where it is tied." The government controlled formal sector, like its colonial predecessor, is essentially parasitical. An informal sector has emerged parallel to it which increasingly supplies the daily subsistence needs of the people. Irene, for example, works at the Ministry of Education for an unreliable and inadequate salary; she earns the money she needs to eat from selling beignets in the market. She also belongs to a tontine or "credit union" which offers its members a pool of capital to draw on for business ventures. Such clubs, ubiquitous among African market women, help fill the economic and social vacuum left by the decay of traditional society and the unresponsiveness of the formal banking sector.

Cameroon's bifurcated economy is also reflected in its schizophrenic education system. Cameroonians flock to the universities to acquire a neo-colonial education which ill-prepares them for the actual needs of the local economy. Jacky, a recent law graduate, is frustrated in his efforts to get a professional job. His family finally bankrolls a men's boutique which merely imports Western fashions and expectations to the country. Teno concludes that Cameroon's economy is like a man with his feet in trash and his head in the clouds with nothing but chaos in between.

Read the filmmakers thoughts on the current state of African Cinema in Imagining Alternatives: African Cinema in the New Century by Jean-Marie Teno

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