Despite the current economy of hot takes and googleable insta-expertise, there are still occasions when the task of critic is sufficiently daunting: the first-ever North American retrospective of Niger-born filmmaker Moustapha Alassane (who died in 2015) is one of them. The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) series Moustapha Alassane, Pioneer of the Golden Age of Nigerien Cinema, running this weekend, is every bit the breakthrough it appears to be, though it must be pointed out that the nine works being shown represent only a fraction of the filmmaker’s four decades’ worth of output. Like Med Hondo (how has Toronto gotten a retrospective before New York?), Sidney Sokhona, and Oumarou Ganda, Alassane is a filmmaker whose obscurity here speaks to the distance between pioneering French documentarian Jean Rouch and the greater body of Francophone cinema from postcolonial Africa — in other words, the ongoing predicament that several of the most visible movies from this period of African history were made, albeit collaboratively, by a white man. Although Rouch immersed himself in West African culture to make his films, championing African directors in the process, his most fervent audiences were those who filled the cinematheques and universities of Europe. (Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese auteur whose filmography comes closest to bucking the trend, famously took Rouch and his Africanist claque to task for “looking at us like insects.”) Curated by Amélie Garin-Davet of the French Embassy and MoMA’s Josh Siegel, the Alassane series — which will tour westward in the coming months — is a vital, unmissable step towards finally rewriting that canon.
Alassane and Rouch shared more than a continent. Alassane was in the car with Rouch that swerved off the road in 2004, killing Rouch at the age of 86, en route to a screening in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where Alassane had chaired the local university’s cinema department for 15 years. Rouch had taken on Alassane as an assistant nearly half a century earlier, trading technical expertise for on-the-ground contacts and giving the Nigerien a taste of direct cinema — from which it appears Alassane took only what he found interesting. Apart from nine months spent at Montreal’s Office national du film, Alassane was not just self-taught but also self-guided. In his teens, lacking access to celluloid film, he developed a hand-drawn animation style on transparent cigarette paper. He later took techniques commonly attributed to Rouch — especially handheld camerawork and collaborative improvisation — in a wild, fabulist direction with his live-action work. Judging from what’s being shown at MoMA, there’s an insatiability to Alassane’s films: he pirouettes from magic-lantern féticheur to withering social critic to deadpan documentarian, abounding all the while in feats of material innovation.
Alassane’s favorite animal, the frog, serves as a mascot for the retrospective. Animated entirely by the director in a Pigalle hotel room, the 1966 cartoon “Bon Voyage Sim” sees a potbellied toad sent by his home government to a neighboring republique, where he’s received with squeaky pageantry. It’s charming in its own right, but also bears an uncanny resemblance to the elaborately choreographed friendship ceremonies held by the newly independent West African nations hosting their former colonial invaders. (In Christian Lelong and Maria Silva Bazzou’s documentary Moustapha Alassane, Cineaste of the Possible, also screening at MoMA, you can see Alassane nixing “Sim”’s original ending, wherein our hero returns home to a military coup d’etat.)
Also from 1966, Alassane’s extraordinary, 32-minute “Le Retour d’un aventurier” (The Return of an Adventurer) follows Jimi, a laborer who comes back to his home village adorned with traditional Western garb (i.e. a suit and tie). Jimi reconnects with childhood friends, bearing a suitcase impossibly stuffed with leather boots, gallon hats, and revolvers, soon turning them into a gang of self-styled Eastwoods. (He renames them “Black Cooper,” “John Kelly,” “Billy Walter,” and “Casse Tout,” which means “break everything.”) It takes only a few breathtaking and hilarious jump cuts for the posse to turn a makeshift watering hole into the site of a back lot–worthy brawl. Even after the crew has irrevocably crossed the village’s Islamic elders, Alassane’s film keeps its fiery political implications at arm’s length, letting the comedy speak through its own growing darkness.
Skepticism abides in these works, aimed less at colonial powers specifically than at power itself. If the title of Alassane’s 1972 feature F.V.V.A (standing for femmes, voitures, villas, argent: girls, cars, mansions, money) recalls a No Limit Records album from the early 2000s, it’s not a total coincidence: the picture concerns Ali, a well-meaning functionary in his 20s who finds himself tempted by the finer things available under post-independence capitalism. His wife, who was forced upon him by his parents in an arranged marriage, is witheringly sarcastic, while one of his friends at the bar offers, “We turned into people addicted to industrial products, most of the time too expensive for us to buy.” As cultural collisions continue apace, Alassane entwines their pleasures and pains in even proportion: the band in the background serves up soft-psychedelic electric guitar riffs, while a corrupt marabout doles out traditional-sounding spiritual advice to help Ali ensnare a second wife.
Even if he was not a self-described ethnographer, Alassane’s work often betrays a running respect towards older traditions; MoMA has paired F.V.V.A with “Shaki” (1973), a lush documentary about the anointing of a Yoruba king within the Abimbola community of northern Nigeria. The king makes repeated glances at Alassane’s camera, and the film ends with a surprisingly polemical reflection on the region’s anti-colonial uprising a few years back. Without dismissing the new king, a voiceover intones: “Victorious doggedness, a group’s confidence in its refusal to leave its future up to others: this is all symbolized in Abimbola. Over the last few years, politicians wanted to act according to their own wishes, their own interests. You all know that the people they forced upon us had no right to power. We continue to refuse them this power.”
Narrated by Rouch, 1977’s “Samba le grand” (Samba the Great) saw Alassane return to animation, this time using stop-motion puppets against hand-crafted backdrops in the service of the folktale of Samba Gana — the “laughing prince” who conquered village after village in a series of bids to woo the princess Annalija Tu Bari. In the end, Samba Gana turns his sword on himself, able only in death to persuade her of his sincerity — at which point Alassane abandons the corporeal (and slightly doll-like) puppets and concludes the retelling in panning shots of oil paintings, magnifying the story an extra degree from bedtime fable to regional myth.
Chronologically, “Samba” is the last film in the MoMA retrospective until “Kokoa,” a stop-motion tour de force made 24 years later. In it, Alassane transforms Niger’s traditional style of kokowa wrestling into a championship of animal combatants — toads, birds, iguanas, and a chameleon — in a sweltering arena, goaded by lavender-voiced frog announcer and a crowd of placid onlookers. Even when the puppets’ faces remain frozen, the dynamic movements (particularly of the crab referee) and droll commentary recontextualize the sport while celebrating its thrills — anthropomorphized but without easy allegory.
In this selection, Alassane comes across as a restless creative force, whose filmography is radical in both its politics and its process. Hopefully the resurrection of his other works takes far fewer than 40 years.
Moustapha Alassane, Pioneer of the Golden Age of Nigerien Cinema runs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 15. Screening times vary; see the website for details.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Moustapha Alassane drove the car that swerved off the road, killing Jean Rouch. This is incorrect; Alassane was a passenger in the car. This has been amended.