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Saving Bruce Lee owes its enigmatic title to an anecdote told by Ivoirian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte when he presented his film, Run, at the Cannes Film Festival. Lacôte was recounting the moment when as a teenager he became fascinated with cinema, while watching a Bruce Lee film in a theater in Abidjan. In one scene, Bruce Lee surrounded by enemies, was vanquishing them one by one, but suddenly unbeknownst to him, a man, creeping out of his sight, was waiting for the right moment to attack him, and when he did, a spectator leapt from his seat with a knife and tore the screen, screaming at Bruce Lee that he would save him. At that moment, the young Philippe Lacôte understood the power of film.
This anecdote fascinated us for several reasons, chief among these is the panoply of cinematic heroes that populate the cultural imaginaries in the African continent and Arab world. Since the middle of the 1970s, Bruce Lee has reigned as an uncontested, beloved, and admired icon. With his physical prowess and sense of justice he captivated at once the imaginary of the rich and poor, the upright and wayward, the powerful and disenfranchised. Perhaps he was the first global hero, the king with the longest rule before Bollywood action films overran the film distribution market.
Exploring cinematic imaginaries and the social life of African and Arab cinemas invariably leads to questions of access, distribution, and the exhibition of films, as well as to questions of cinematic languages, poetics, means of production, and ideological paradigms. As the birth of a “national” cinema is directly bound to the establishment of independent states and the institution of sovereign public and private film production entities, we asked whether the crowning of Bruce Lee as a popular hero might incarnate a milestone or a threshold, and whether he dislodged “local” cinematic heroes or simply occupied an empty seat. In other words, we explored the questions of postcoloniality that permeate the first two and sometimes three decades of African and Arab cinema, in its different variegations, from the perspective of the creation of national icons and sense of peoplehood, writing a national narrative, and capturing a national landscape.
Film histories dedicated to the African and Arab worlds have adeptly studied the lineages of filmmakers who were formed in the Cold War’s West, tracing influences between teachers and students and how they appear in local cinemas, the pervasive sway of the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (or IDHEC, now known as La Fémis) in Paris, or the Italian neorealist school, to cite two examples. However, the scholarship on the influence of schools and masters from the Cold War’s East, has received a lot less attention. And yet, the number of filmmakers from these two regions who studied in Moscow, Prague, Berlin, and Łódź from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s, is impressive. During the bipolarism of the Cold War, and for multiple and diverse reasons, the African continent and the Arab world were contested territories for the strategic deployment of influence and allegiance between the two superpowers. Cultural diplomacy represented an important realm in which that contest was manifested, specifically with granting scholarships in higher education and the creation of specialized professional national elites whose allegiance would be organically bound to either power. Under the aegis of the International Socialist Friendships, the Soviet Union used channels of diplomacy to host a remarkable number of students at universities in Moscow and other cities in the Soviet bloc.
Saving Bruce Lee’s curatorial conceit is based on research around the destinies and universes of African and Arab filmmakers who studied at the prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (or VGIK) in Moscow. Given the paucity of primary sources, the impetus was to retrace the journeys of several filmmakers by researching, and when possible recording their testimonies and recollections, bringing to light elements that help trace tangibly and critically the influence of Soviet masters on their students’ oeuvre and interrogate prevailing scholarship on African and Arab cinema. Their mentors were practicing successful Soviet filmmakers, some as famous as Sergei Gerasimov, Grigori Chukhrai, and Roman Karmen, and others less well-known although award-winning internationally, like Igor Talankin, and Marlen Khutsiev. It is furthermore remarkable that Soviet film histories and theories have omitted entirely these “foreign” graduates from the narratives of canons. Some of the most critically acclaimed and internationally recognized masters of African and Arab cinema are graduates of the VGIK, including Souleymane Cissé (Mali), Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali), Ossama Mohammed (Syria), Azzeddine Meddour (Algeria), and Mohammad Malas (Syria), while others have been less well-known, including Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim Elnour (Sudan), Nasser al-Tayyeb al-Mak (Sudan), Mohamed Abouelouakar (Morocco), Rabah Bouberras (Algeria), Hassen Bouabdellah (Algeria), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (Mali), Costa Diagne (Guinea), Daouda Keïta (Guinea), Kalifa Condé (Guinea), and Jean-Baptiste Elanga (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The project’s time span is a historical bracket marked by upheaval in both the African continent and the Arab world, beginning with independence and the arduous challenge of decolonization, followed by coup d’états in the 1970s and 1980s, that were sometimes mired in the eruption of violent strife, but almost invariably, the tightening of selfproclaimed democracies or republics, into autocracies governed by an iron-fist, which policed freedom of expression, political dissent, and civil liberties. Reversely, in the Soviet Union, the 1960s were marked by Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of Ottepel (or “thaw”), or the political liberalization following the dark decades of Stalin’s rule. However, that policy was short-lived, and intolerance for dissent, or deviance from the party line soon returned, and prevailed, until perestroika and glasnost. In other words, it is impossible to synthesize a single overarching narrative when trying to deconstruct cinematic idiom, political engagement, and the personal experience of these filmmakers. The changing context impacted their destinies and ought to be acknowledged.
The destiny of the first generation of students who enrolled in the 1960s was radically different from those who enrolled in the 1970s and the 1980s. They were all motivated to build or contribute to their respective “national” cinemas. The first generation who returned home in 1960s had to practically lay the building blocks for creating public filmproduction entities. The second generation returned home to face harsh realities, a terrible paucity of means for production, but also unsympathetic regimes. The situation was worse for the third generation. Mohammad Malas directed his first feature, Dreams of the City (1983), several years after he returned to Syria because the state produced up to one and a half features per year. And while the film earned critical praise worldwide, it was frowned upon by the Syrian authorities. Ossama Mohammed’s first feature, Stars in Broad Daylight (1988), which he also directed several years after he returned, premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes but was banned in Syria. Sissako, Meddour, Abouelouakar, or Cissé, to cite but a few examples, did not direct films whose narrative and dramaturgies elegize their governments or betray the reality of everyday life in their societies. Their protagonists are everyday folk, who are “heroic” in their tenacity to defy adversity, to stand up for their rights, and fight for a modicum of dignity in life. Their protagonists never wanted to sit on the throne that Bruce Lee eventually claimed.
The research we conducted in preparation for Saving Bruce Lee followed two principal axes. On the one hand, we were interested in recording the personal testimonies of the former students about their encounter with Moscow, their experience of otherness, their engagement with Soviet society, and to identify—in the first person—the composition of the intellectual, affective, and emotional disposition of artists finding their voice and coming into their own using a language as well as cinematic idiom that was not their own. On the other hand, we wanted to understand the mechanics of pedagogy in the Soviet framework. How socialism’s promises of utopia and clearly defined ideological frame work intersected with a cinematic imaginary and the filmmakers’ subjective voices. Considering that some of the filmmakers who graduated from the VGIK returned to their countries and were considered dissident, critical artists, we also wanted to trace sub version and criticality and its relationship to the curriculum, and respective practice of the Soviet mentors.
Saving Bruce Lee saw the light of day on an invitation from the Garage Museum in Moscow in 2013. We presented our research findings in 2015 in the form of a modest documentary and archival display for the museum’s inauguration of their newly restored home in Gorky Park. Our collaboration came to an end a few months later, but we carried on with the project, especially after meeting Gabrielle Chomentowski, whose contribution to this present iteration of the project has been invaluable. This iteration at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) intends to foreground the experience and voices of VGIK graduates, Ossama Mohammed, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim Elnour, and Mohamed Abouelouakar, by inviting them onstage to share their first-hand experiences and recollections in conversations with trusted friends who are also filmmakers. In addition, we address the work of two other filmmakers, also VGIK graduates, who could not be with us, namely Abderrahmane Sissako, who is presently in the midst of preparation for his next feature, and Costa Diagne, who passed away in 1996. We shed light on their practice by screening their films, specifically their diploma graduation films. And last, but certainly by no means least, we are very thankful that, finally, Saving Bruce Lee has found such a vital and embracing home at HKW.
Koyo Kouoh and Rasha Salti (curators of Saving Bruce Lee)
This text is taken from the publication Saving Bruce Lee – African and Arab Cinema in the Era of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy