Plot: Zairian singing star Papa Wemba plays a bumbling poor boy who looks for love and respect in the big city (Kinshasa), and eventually, after many farcical mishaps, finds it. A country bumpkin, he gets a job in a luxury home with a powerful, bossy wife, who flounces out of town. Left alone in the house, the hick chauffeur pretends to be the man of the house. In a nightclub-hopping spree, his masquerade works to impress the girl of his dreams. He dreads the dawn and discovery, but love conquers all except the temper of his boss.
Style: The style of La Vie Est Belle is reminiscent of both French farce and broad Hollywood comedy (it was co-directed by a Belgian, one of the conditions of its funding). Made both for a pan-African and a broadly international market, it is cheerfully vulgar and leans heavily for jokes on unflattering stereotypes of powerful women. While atypical of the African cinema on the international festival circuit and of the objectives of the first generation of African cineastes (see Borom Sarret), it is typical of a genre of African-for-Africans entertainment films, also reflecting tastes of the region, and is a particularly successful example. The star, Papa Wemba, is a pan-African celebrity, and internationally moderately well-known.
Background on director/film: Ngangura Mweze was trained in cinema in Belgium, taught film at the National Institute for Arts in Kinshasa, and was chief of the audio-visual section of the National Museum of Zaire. La Vie Est Belle is his first feature; earlier he scripted and directed two documentary mid-length films, Cheri Samba and Kin Kiesse.
In an interview with Pat Aufderheide at Filmfest D.C. in 1988, Mweze addressed the controversial question of whether La Vie Est Belle is an authentic African film or an example of co-production tainting cultural values: "So what is an African film? Not a marginal cinema, I hope. This is the first African feature a public has gone to the trouble of paying the same money for that they would have for a Rambo, or a kung fu film. Most African films are shown at cultural centers, practically free." (The film was a smash hit in Zaire, widely popular in Africa, and was widely seen in European television.)
"I was also very pleased that in Belgium and in Canada, I could show it to people who had come to see something 'from Africa,' and by a quarter of the way through, they had forgotten that and were just watching 'a movie.'"
Mweze disagrees with those who see African cineastes as modern-day griots, or storytellers: "People don't know really what they are talking about when they say 'African cinema.' Cinema is a language that does not exist in traditional African culture. Cinema is an urban art. The griot in one part of Africa is not the same as in another part of Africa. The public to whom one addresses oneself may not know what a griot is. In Kinshasa, they don't exist."
Film production context: Zaire has little film production but lively television production. Most Zairian filmmakers--although not Mweze--learned their technique in television, which primarily produces variety shows and documentaries. Television's potential to foster indigenous cultural expression is limited by the fact that it receives low-cost product from international sources, particularly European.
Importance: La Vie Est Belle is significant because it demonstrates a different side of African cinema from the sober, often didactic films probing social, economic and political realities of newly independent nations. It is frankly populist and showcases African entertainment.Other reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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