Last night, I made my way to the AFI in Silver Spring to Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s new film Le president. The film screened as the final selection of the New African Films Festival that ran the course of the week. Bekolo’s sardonic and surrealist film deals with a fictionalized president of Cameroon, who, after 42 years in power mysteriously disappears on the eve of an important electoral meeting.
The president in the film is clearly based on Cameroon’s own long-serving President, Paul Biya, and the film itself is a pointed and extremely funny meditation on power, the tendency for power to be used for its self perpetuation, the innate corrupting influence that this holds and the responsibility that those in power hold to society as a whole. As it turns out, the fictional president of the film has disappeared both the find and successor and (potentially) against his will. It is also strongly hinted at that he may have been executed as part of a plot to remove him from power and we are following him as he in forced to confront the wrongs he has done in the afterlife. While the film does not dwell on specifics (the mystery is part of the fun – and obviously open to viewer interpretation) several different scenarios are hinted at.
The film does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of the confusion of being bombarded by mass media as it progresses – using a series of jump cuts and multiple frame-within-frames. The film is narrated by a television reporter both providing commentary on the means by which the president held power and giving voice to many of the different conspiracy theories for what may have become of him.
This is further juxtaposed with scenes in which the president travels the country in the back of a car, disguised in Ray Bans and scarf visiting both friend and foe alike. Visited people include fiery young rapper and revolutionary leader with whom he debates the finer points of the high office in providing meaningful employment opportunities for Cameroon’s youth and a meal with the President’s former wife (who may or may not have previously been executed by the President’s regime – implying that the President himself may be dead). The film also includes a number of scenes involving jailed former political allies of the president who turned against him as he became increasingly autocratic and who may have killed the President.
The film in a way, deals with the hope of young Cameroonians for the restoration of the rule of law, Democratic choice and opportunity for an educated though disadvantaged young population. The film features some beautiful lingering shots and cinematography despite being shot largely on digital hand-held cameras. Bekolo is an intelligent and skillful director and his execution of the script is both sympathetic and challenging. Debutante screenwriter Simon Njami packs a lot into the films’ 64-minute run time and while the script at times becomes a little preachy; much of this can simply be explained by the explicitly political nature of the project and the desire to give voice to many of the shortcomings of dictatorial rule. The film, in many ways, shares DNA with many of Jean-Luc Godard’s late 60s/early 70s films such as Weekend, Sympathy for the Devil and Pierrot le fou in its blend of surrealism and politics.