Depictions of African Poverty in World Cinema

This is the second in a series of articles investigating cinematic depictions of poverty from around the world. The first piece looked at depictions of Indian poverty. This one focuses on South Africa and Chad.

Very often, we deal with the poor as abstractions. We lump them all together as statistics, and plan solutions to raise those numbers. This is dehumanizing for the actual people whom those statistics represent. At their best, these statistics provide common ground for aid workers to debate and forecast the results of their work. At worst, “we give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor,” because we fail to view them as fully formed people created by God, as Bryant Myers states in his excellent book.

Viewing world cinema provides a corrective to this danger. Films feature characters, and so films put actual names and faces on poverty. Though often fictional, the audience knows the stories are based on the real world, and so the audience is encouraged to accept a more nuanced impression of the poor. Through world cinema, audiences are granted a deeper appreciation of the complex challenges facing poor people in diverse contexts around the world.

South Africa – Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema and District 9

Of the top twenty-five nations according to percentage of population living below the poverty line, South Africa is the only country that has submitted films for Academy Awards consideration in the past decade, and it has done so consistently. According to the CIA World Factbook, fifty percent of South Africa’s population lives below the national poverty line. Yet, they have submitted six films in the past ten years and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature in 2006 with Tsotsi.

Following Tsotsi’s win in 2005, South Africa submitted the urban crime drama Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema. The film is loosely based on the actual life of South African gangster Lucky Kunene who took over real estate in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg in the nineties. The film follows Kunene’s rise into a life of crime from childhood. The film did not secure a nomination in the foreign language film category.

One year later, however, in 2010, the South African sci-fi film District 9 did garner a nomination not in the foreign language film category, but in the more prestigious Best Picture category. The film, also set in Johannesburg, is about a spaceship full of sick aliens which years before settled over the city. South Africa decided to help the aliens by putting them in ghettos and quarantining them from human society. Much like the actual black population of Johannesburg, the aliens live in sprawling slums, are infected by an aids-like illness, and the human population is terrified of possible violence from the alien population.

Given South Africa’s past with apartheid, it is no surprise that racism plays a large role in both of these films. The poor are of a different race, be they black or alien, than the people in power, and the key depiction of the poor in both films is as victims of a racist society. Because of this victimization, the poor in both films are also depicted as prone to crime (the boys in Jerusalema steal to survive and rise in power, and the aliens ransack stores and terrorize humans in District 9), addicted to drugs (heroin in Jerusalema and cat food in District 9), violent (Jerusalema’s gangsters, and District 9’s aliens are apt to gunplay), and in both films, the poor are without true homes except those provided by the state. Also in both films, poverty is perpetuated by racism.

The only hope presented in both films for an end to poverty is in those in power learning to see the world from the poor’s point of view. In Jerusalema, Lucky begins a relationship with a white woman and begins to integrate into normal society. However, once he is arrested for his crimes, she and her family abandon him. There is a moment of hope, but they cannot get past their racism. In District 9, a bumbling government worker is infected by an alien substance and slowly turns into an alien. After being befriended by a sympathetic alien, he begins to understand the aliens’ plight and puts his life on the line to help them restart their ship.

Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, but the vestiges of that racist system remain. It’s one thing to radically change a countries government. It’s another to change the attitude of its citizens. That South African filmmakers are continuing to push for compassion and empathy between races is a societal commitment to social equality is one thing, but actual interpersonal peace is another thing entirely, and until such commonality exists, poverty will likely persist.

Chad – A Screaming Man

In 2010, with the help of the French production company Pili Films, Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun made A Screaming Man. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, making Haroun the first Chadian director to enter and win the in the main competition. Eighty percent of Chad’s population lives below the poverty line, and the nation’s film production output has been limited. The country has only ever submitted one film to the Academy Awards, the 2002 film Abouna, also directed by Haroun. The film was not nominated.

A Screaming Man is the story of a poor pool attendant at a Chinese owned hotel whose family is torn apart by the ongoing civil war. The poor in this film are depicted as devoted to their simple jobs if somewhat without ambition (the main character has been working as a pool attendant for thirty years). Now, it might be argued that the poor have no ambition because they have no opportunity, but the film is silent on this point. Jobs are also scarce in this film, so the poor are forced to sacrifice their close relationships to keep their jobs (the father sells his son into the military to get his job back).

Mostly though, the poor are depicted as victims of forces beyond their control, namely, foreign economic control and civil war. Chinese investors own the main character’s hotel, and the Chinese have no regard for their Chadian employees. The ongoing civil war eventually destroys the main character’s city, source of income, and city. War perpetuates poverty in A Screaming Man more than any other force, and no option for rescue is presented. The film ends with the main character releasing the body of his dead son on a river, despondent and without hope.

Chad has been in a state of near continuous civil war since its independence from France in the 1960s. This continued state of domestic unrest would likely foster a sense of helplessness like that depicted in A Screaming Man, and hope for any end to poverty would likely be seen to be possible only if the civil war ends.