Manthia Diawara’s Strategic Ruminations on Migration and the Conundrums of Cinematic Autoethnography
Keywords:autoethnography, ethnographic film, subjective documentary film, migration and diaspora, opera on film
Manthia Diawara’s films often situate his autobiographical presentation within an ethnosurround linking francophone West African cultural histories to issues of diasporic subjectivity in Europe and North America. In Rouch in Reverse (1995) Diawara focuses on the films of French anthropologist Jean Rouch to interrogate claims about ethnographic “knowledge” of West African cultures. Making Rouch the informant and Paris the locale of investigation, the film “reverses” ethnographic practice by situating immigrants as expert authorities and inverting conventions of representation, linking Diawara as “scientist” to his strategic ruminations on colonialism, patriarchy, and the limits of an ethnographic paradigm. Two decades later, in An Opera of the World (2017), Diawara repurposes footage from a “Sahel opera” to explore the plight of African and Syrian migrants risking precarious sea crossings. He intercuts these narrative segments with both archival footage of earlier refugee efforts and interviews with film critics and migration scholars to create a montage of cinematic “opera” voicing issues of asylum. In these films, Diawara’s self-representation as a mobile subject both authorizes him and interrogates conventional representations of Africans and other migrants by creating an innovatively counter-ethnographic mode of film.
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