At the Intersection of African and Afro-Diasporic Cinema

A young Black woman and man walk briskly through crowded streets, shops, and houses in a sunny urban center in Africa. They wear dark glasses, sharp clothes and at one point carry a blue suitcase. Sometimes they drive around the roads that cross or surround the city in a red car. Were it not for the sumptuousness of the images and the editing, reminiscent of the style used to represent Black characters in the works of the U.S. Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, these scenes from Amansa Tiafi (Public Toilet Africa) by first time Ghanaian filmmaker Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah would coincide almost directly with scenes from the feature film Touki Bouki (1973), directed by iconic Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty.
The cinematic references evident throughout Public Toilet Africa mean it is possible to see the film as an example of a brand new African cinema: one aware of and directly influenced by the continent’s filmic avant-garde and the “Black cinema” made by filmmakers of Afro-Diasporic descent in the United States, the country where director Ofosu-Yeboah has lived from time to time since he did his postgraduate studies in cinema in Chicago.
It also means that Ofosu-Yeboah is part of the historic and ongoing Black diaspora and, as we can also realize in the works of other contemporary Ghanaian filmmakers such as Akosua Adoma Owusu and Nuotama Frances Bodomo, his cinema is a result of a life built among different Black cultures and Black territories.”Public Toilet Africa is a libation to the spirit and memory of artists and persons whose work and life continue to inspire my practice, and the philosophy behind my work,” Ofosu-Yeboah says in the official material about the movie’s premiere in the 74th Locarno Film Festival.
As in Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1974) or Sugar Hill (Paul Maslansky, 1974), the protagonist in Public Toilet Africa is a Black femme fatale, a vigilante who is also frequently vindictive. Ama, played by Briggitte Appiah, a Ghanaian actress and model with a serious and striking physiognomy, was “given as a gift” as a girl to a white family of European descent who started collecting artworks in Ghana after the country’s independence in 1957. She worked for this family, and for others, as a domestic worker.
After many years, Ama decides to return to her hometown, Accra, the capital of Ghana, to demand compensation for a job she did there as an unpaid photographic model. Sadiq, played by fellow Ghanaian actor David Klu, is a friend and former lover she calls upon to help her on this journey. The couple meets and pursues the deadbeat white photographer—played, curiously enough, by the film’s director of photography, Marcin Szocinski—by attempting to lure him to one last photo shoot before the settling of scores. While the session is taking place, under dark lighting and a symbolically seductive atmosphere —at different moments, the film opens the possibility of a reading of Ama’s photographic work as sexual exploitation— Sadiq steals a suitcase from the photographer containing all of his camera and lighting equipment.
Ama’s journey in Public Toilet Africa embodies a criticism of the historical exploitation of the work and images of Black and African, and more specifically of Black African women, by whites and foreigners— a theme also explored throughout Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), whose Black African female protagonist also becomes the maid of white Europeans. In this sense, to demand payment and, above all, to steal the photographer’s equipment is to make it impossible to continue a cycle of exploitation of labor-image as well as simultaneously to reclaim, through the very gesture of making the film—tracking with the original motivations of the Blaxploitation movement—representations of Blacks and Africans made by themselves.
As such, Public Toilet Africa exalts the Black body through seductive and almost advertising-like images of the main characters occupying various scenes and spaces both around Accra and in the countryside. Even if inspired by the films of the various Black American film movements of the 1970s, this way of filming seems to reproduce idealized ways of showing Black and African bodies in the cinema, perceptible in multiple aesthetically ravishing scenes throughout the film. There is a scene in which various men use a precarious public toilet and tear up pieces of newspaper to clean themselves. Exploring the luminosity of the place, the camera slowly films the users in profile, with their heads just outside the individual cabins. In another scene the camera films, again slowly, African women dancing in a ramshackle nightclub in which the white photographer joins them on the dancefloor.
Here, two other scenes must be highlighted. One in which Ama appears, in profile and from behind, undressing in a mystical and magisterial way in front of a waterfall, and one in which Ama and Sadiq have sex inside a car. In the latter case, much care is taken by Ofosu-Yeboah to shoot in close-up, giving the images a sensitive and sensual quality rather than a hypersexualized one. But, at the same time, Ama’s breasts end up being much more prominent in the images than Sadiq’s body parts, which, in fact, are not even shown. In some moments it feels like it is the lewd white photographer character filming the scene.
Public Toilet Africa collects a diversity of ways of framing that transcend the more advertising-like images. Such diversity parallels the multiplicity of stories presented in the midst of the main plot. It is as if each story called for a way of filming in and of itself: a style that ultimately constitutes a single artistic work. Before we are even introduced to the protagonist, Ama, and come to understand her motivations, we encounter Honourable-Honourable, a politician campaigning for re-election in the crowded streets of Accra. Amplifying his voice with the help of a megaphone, he offers food to those present at his impromptu rallies and promises that if elected he will build public toilets for the population.
In the middle of these raucous scenes, we are introduced to Kwaku and Atta, two retired policemen, always drunk, who perform various forms of physical comic relief and spout dialogues close to those of Western theatre buffoons. At the film’s midpoint, we follow the adventures of these two characters for a considerable time. At a certain point, they stumble across a decadent farmer who has a story that the film also makes room for. In another moment, pausing during their flight with the stolen goods, Ama and Sadiq sit and watch the village’s people’s court, in which a man accused of theft is under trial. Again Ofosu-Yeboah devotes multiple minutes to a tangential story that becomes, briefly, central to our attention: the Black judge and the table where he is seated are filmed in fixed shots, like a portrait, which ends up highlighting his characterization, mainly the contrasting wig he wears with blond hair tied back and curled near his face. This may be a reference to the kind of public tribunals run by European territorial administrators in different African countries during colonialism. The movie shows a contemporary village trial: now the judge is a Black man who takes on the look and manner of his white antecedents.
Everything happens with the protagonist couple as the thread linking disparate stories, the narrative throughline weaving them together. This narrative-montage structure cuts against Aristotelian linearity and causality and is closer in construction to jazz music and the storytelling patterns of African cultures, with their more open, non-hierarchical, circular and tautological narratives spiraling out in swirling patterns of time and form—characteristics also notable in Mambéty’s work. What may appear to many as apparent disorder is, on the contrary, another way of organizing and realizing not only the material of narrative but also that of everyday life. “In Africa we are used to telling stories using more time because we have time, we are used to enjoy the time,” Ofosu-Yeboah told me in an interview. “We are not people that are always looking at the clock.”
An off-screen narrator explains each new story tangent and side character with great eloquence and detail, directly introducing and cataloging social perceptions and patterns of contemporary Ghana. Unlike the film’s European-focused criticism of colonialism, particularly regarding that continent’s exploitation of the African labor-image, the narrator makes it clear that the exploiters of labor and land in this part of Africa today are, respectively, Chinese and Lebanese. While this information brings more complexity to the initial criticism of the purely white foreign explorer plundering African visual and aural cultures, the presentation of it in the midst of a giant mix of different stories may seem, at least to the eyes of viewers more accustomed to Western narratives, an excess of content and theme.  At the end of the film, there is a return to the main vein of criticism. We see the Honourable-Honourable politician playing golf on the beach, in a haphazard, overly excited way, with a white Western businessman. After a few swings of their clubs and the disappearance of golf balls in the direction of the ocean, the two men shake hands, sealing a deal to build a resort in Ghana. The scene is mixed with images of Ama looking at the beach—it is not clear whether she is observing Honourable-Honourable’s actions—and sums up the perception that the heroine’s racial and gendered anger and her actions for revenge and personal justice are fragile in the face of a larger and more complex structure that drives the gears of exploitation in Africa.
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