A high-angle camera zooms in on Manga and Sory, two high-school boys kissing passionately at night in a sulphurous red convertible car in Conakry. The music is late Guinean singer Sory Kandia Kouyaté’s ‘Toutou Diarra’. This is the opening scene of Mohamed Camara’s Dakan (1997). It’s unforgettable in its heralding of night-time as a site of transgressive queer possibility, and for its bold pairing of a homoerotic encounter with a classic Mande song to the memory of great warriors of the region’s precolonial past.
Hailed as the first West African film to explore homosexuality, Dakan (‘destiny’ in Mandingo) premiered at Cannes in 1997, where it faced a mix of fiery rejection and fascination – both of which were to accompany the film for a long time to come. Camara often recalls how Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki, 1973; Hyenas, 1992), a veteran of African cinema, walked out of the film’s press conference stating: “You can be sure that your career is over, but in a hundred years, people will still talk about you.”
The film had already barely come into being when its subversive theme led to the government withdrawing financial support. It made finding actors difficult. Camara’s own brother had to play Manga, while he himself acted as Sory’s father.
Screenings were a risky business. Dakan was shown at the 1999 FESPACO, having lived a full life on European and North American festival circuits already. As Beti Ellerson notes, the film’s theme enabled it to find a public outside of the usual viewership of African cinema, in particular in a number of independent and LGBT-themed festivals in the era of New Queer Cinema.
The film starkly divided audiences. Black, queer, continental and diasporic audiences from Soweto to Washington DC were enthralled. But in the filmmaker’s home country, it became the object of a national controversy. In a 2019 interview for AfroQueer podcast, Camara recollects changing hotels every day and leaving before the end of screenings to avoid potential violence.
Yet, Dakan wasn’t Camara’s first brush with public hostility. The charged themes of his previous short films – incest in Denko (1993) and child suicide in Minka (1994) – revealed his keen interest in familial dramas and the tension between social expectations and individual desires. What could be mistaken for a taste for the sensational was a deep desire to humanise complex social issues.
Aside from fascination and vilification, Dakan also met with frustration. Detractors and fans alike wrongly assumed Camara to be gay. They asked questions about the hidden realities of queer life on the continent that the filmmaker couldn’t answer. In both post-screening discussions and reviews, question were raised as to whether the world the film portrayed was even possible. It was, of course. Yet, Camara responded to these queries by speaking out against the realist imperative African filmmakers found themselves confined within. He spoke more in favour of creative individuality. His was a work of art, not a testament of existence nor an anthropological document.
The rhetoric had limitations, but it resonated in the context of a Black cinema often corralled into documentation by former colonial powers and newly independent governments alike. Camara belonged to a generation of Guinean filmmakers who were disenchanted with the overly didactic cinema of Syli-Cinema, Guinea’s Ministry of Information film unit under Sékou Touré’s Marxist and Pan-Africanist regime.
Mambéty aside, few could have predicted that Camara’s filmmaking career would end so abruptly. Since Denko won several prestigious prizes, Camara had embarked on his first feature, Dakan, as a director full of promise. But, 25 years later, he hasn’t been able to make another film. He’s only recently started to work on new film projects.
The film’s fate continues to haunt African cinema, as subsequent filmmakers tackling queer subject matter have faced similar vitriol. Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s 2001 film Karmen Geï prompted threats of violence when it was screened in Dakar. As with Camara’s subversive use of Sory Kandia Kouyaté on his film’s soundtrack, the object of the controversy in Karmen Geï was less the homoerotic theme itself than the use of traditional Mouride chants during a lesbian woman’s burial.
As recently as 2017, screenings of the South African film Inxeba (2017) were met with protests. Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (2018), a Nairobi-based lesbian coming-of-age story was banned when she refused to change an ending considered too hopeful. Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim’s Ifé (2020) was mostly screened online to avoid the Nigerian censorship board, while an excised version of the Surreal 16 Collective’s Juju Stories (2021) was screened in local cinemas. Films like Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ queer musical sci-fi Neptune Frost (2021) are unlikely to receive local distribution.