I've never been to Cameroon. In fact, I had trouble finding it on a map. There it was, finally, over by Nigeria and Chad. Like most African nations, the Republic of Cameroon has spent the last several hundred years dealing with 1) colonialism and 2) post-colonialism. At one time or another, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the British, the Germans and the French have had a hand in Cameroon's affairs. And one of the major issues facing the country, ever since it gained its independence in 1960, has been deciding how much of that legacy to hold on to. Should Cameroon return to its ancient African roots? Or should it continue to graft Western culture onto those roots?
Until now, Claire Denis' Chocolat was the only film I'd ever seen that was set in Cameroon. A dreamy memoir about the years Denis spent as the daughter of a French district officer in the '50s, Chocolat may be the ultimate white liberal film about African colonialism, so quietly apologetic that you have to lean close to the screen to hear what it's saying. But for all its PC trappings and art-film je ne sais quoi, Chocolat is still a French person's look at life in Cameroon, with everything that implies. Which is why it's such a pleasure to write about Jean Pierre Bekolo's Quartier Mozart, which the UW Cinematheque will be screening on Thursday, July 25, at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall. To its eternal credit, Quartier Mozart is of, by and for Cameroonians.
That doesn't mean the rest of us can't profit from watching it, of course. Or enjoy ourselves while doing so. Set in a poor neighborhood of the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde, Quartier Mozart is veritably bursting with local flavor. There's the police chief, Mad Dog, who tries to strong-arm the citizens he's supposed to be serving and protecting but who can't even sustain dominion over his pair of wives. There's Atango the Young Girl's Candy (as he likes to refer to himself), who woos the women folk wearing a tuxedo jacket and a red scarf. And there's Mamam Thekla, a real-live witch who, among other things, has the power to transform a woman into a man.
Which is exactly what happens when a young woman known as Queen of the 'Hood decides she'd like to try being King of the 'Hood for a while. Transformed into "My Guy," this African version of Victor/Victoria sets his/her sights on the police chief's daughter, Saturday, and to say that all hell breaks loose would be to oversell this comedy's hang-loose charm. But Bekolo, who'd seen (and made) his share of music videos when Quartier Mozart was being put together just over 10 years ago, knows how to jazz up a scene. Reportedly influenced by Spike Lee's early films, he fills the soundtrack with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of tunes. And he lets the camera do its own little hippity-hop on occasion.
Bekolo also allows the characters to speak in what can only be called their native tongue ' French, yes, but French that's not afraid to swim in the gutter. Quartier Mozart has more than its fair share of dick jokes, which, in the context of Cameroon's stuffy European heritage, seems liberating. The whole movie could be described as one long dick joke; it's Bekolo's attempt to expose the sexual politics that keeps women under men's thumbs in today's Cameroon. I can't say I always sensed that message coming through loud and clear. (The women seemed pretty powerful to me.) Nor did I feel I "got" all the jokes, especially the inside ones. But that's as it should be. Quartier Mozart is their world. I'm just visiting.