Jean-Pierre Bekolo awarded the 2023-24 McMillan-Stewart Fellowship in Distinguished Filmmaking

Portrait of Jean-Pierre Bekolo

The Film Study Center is pleased to announce that Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo has been selected as the 2023-24 McMillan-Stewart Fellow in Distinguished Filmmaking. The McMillan-Stewart Fellowship is hosted by the Film Study Center in collaboration with the Harvard Film Archive, which will screen nine of Bekolo’s films March 4 – April 21, with the filmmaker in person on March 22, 23, and 24.

Jean-Pierre Bekolo (b. 1966) subverts the conventions of “African cinema” with a certain humor and sarcasm. His cinema is in the tradition of filmmakers who, for many on the African continent, have forged a cinematographic culture through American films or the gaze of others and who have seized upon cinema to divert it, to appropriate the camera for their own narrative and their own cinematographic grammar. His studies in physics at the University of Yaoundé, television production at the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, and semiotics in Paris certainly also explain his imaginative work, which overturns stereotypes of Africa and African cinema.

In a country where cinema is controlled, even censored, and where it was impossible to film until independence, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s films question the political sense of making and distributing films in Africa. Through an aesthetic blend of genre films and political satire, he takes issue with the (cinematic) invention of Africa by others. Bekolo’s cinema is rooted in the daily realities of Cameroon, linking past, present, and future, questioning both the form and the cinematic gesture, as well as the possibilities of making cinema.

Deeply rooted in the Quartier Mozart, a popular neighborhood in Yaoundé, Bekolo’s first film (Quartier Mozart, 1992) mixes the everyday life of insolent characters with a sense of humor and a touch of a Spike Lee joint, creating a comedy with a burlesque and fickle accent, in which the game of cross-dressing only makes sense in the context of social satire. In Aristotle’s Plot (1996), he questions African cinematographic grammar, staging a merciless battle somewhere in Africa, from Cinéma and his gang, who occupy the “Cinéma Africa” day and night to watch American blockbusters, to Essomba, a filmmaker back home, and adamant about a certain idea of “African cinema.” Between fiction and reality, he deconstructs the codes of narrative and discourse to further blur the lines. With The Bloodettes (2005) and Naked Reality (2016), Bekolo propels us into a dystopian future, as if to underline the paradox of making anticipatory films in a country with no future.

Jean-Pierre Bekolo uses cinema to address questions of political philosophy and to denounce the abuse of power by a corrupt president (The President, 2013), to question the eminent intellectual Valentin Mudimbe on the meaning of beings and things (Mudimbe’s Things and Words, 2015) and to make a manifesto film against the death penalty (Miraculous Weapons, 2017), borrowing its title from Aimé Césaire’s collection of poems of the same name. – Farah Clémentine Dramani-Issifou, film programmer, curator and researcher, and currently a Film Study Center Fellow 

The McMillan-Stewart Fellowship in Distinguished Filmmaking was established at the Film Study Center in 1997 with a generous gift from Geneviève McMillan in memory of her late friend, Reba Stewart, to support outstanding filmmakers from Africa or the African diaspora. The endowment provides both a fellowship for the laureate, through which they visit Harvard and share their work with the University community, and also for the purchase of a representative example of the fellow’s oeuvre for preservation in the Harvard Film Archive. The McMillan-Stewart Advisory Committee for 2023-24 is comprised of Mahen Bonetti, Haden Guest, Joana Pimenta, Kivu Ruhorahoza, and Aboubakar Sanogo.