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Cinephobia/Cinephilia: Modernism and Sub-Saharan African Film


Coming of age in the 1960s in newly independent Senegal, documentarist Samba Félix Ndiaye participated in a ciné-club at the French Cultural Center in Dakar with a group of friends that included fellow future filmmakers Ben Diogaye Beye, Mahama Traoré, and Djibril Diop Mambety. Movie marathons were followed by passionate debates, Ndiaye recounted later, during which “the provocateurs who supported Intolerance were angry at the Battleship Potemkin fanatics, and the devotees of German Expressionism felt the same way toward the disciples of Italian Neorealism.”[1] Ndiaye’s remembrance of youthful cinephilia fits a model we know well, one epitomized by Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. As evidenced by the subsequent careers of Ndiaye, Diogaye Beye, Traoré, and Mambety, however, a cinephilia anchored in European and North American modernist cinema would become untenable. Members of the first generation of Black African directors instead deployed modernist techniques to work against a Euro-American film tradition that had either ignored or systematically misrepresented their continent.

In what follows, I will interrogate two often-associated terms—cinephilia and modernism—with respect to sub-Saharan African cinema, not often associated with either. Discussions of African modernism in visual art have been necessarily inflected by European modernism’s enthusiasm for sub-Saharan African art objects coded as traditional and even primitive. This dynamic, a perpetual dissociation of authentic African cultural production from modernity and modernism, has been powerfully deconstructed by Chika Okeke-Agulu for the field of art history and Simon Gikandi for both art history and literary studies.[2] Reviewing “The Short Century” (2001), Okwui Enwezor’s monumental exhibition of African writing, painting, and photography, Gikandi argued for the recognition of an African modernism that “emerg[ed] from the continent’s complex history of colonialism and decolonisation” and “created the space in which colonial ideas about the African could be displaced.”[3]

Although several stills and posters and even a few films were included in Enwezor’s exhibit, Africa has remained stubbornly absent from examinations of modernist and avant-garde cinema. Africans under French colonial domination had virtually no access to filmmaking technology, and the infamous Laval Decree in 1934 enacted a system of censorship that prevented them from filming their own continent. West and Central African cinemas were born with independence, in or around 1960 and at the height of the French New Wave. Yet European, North American, and African scholars alike neglect to include them among the global new waves of the nineteen sixties and seventies, instead setting African films of the period in opposition to the modern, like the art objects that inspired Pablo Picasso and Man Ray. French critic Guy Hennebelle, a fellow traveler of Black African cinema from its beginnings, in 1972 described it as limited to a simple realism that a more mature European cinema had already outgrown. “African cinemas overall have drawn their inspiration from dated, if not outdated, aesthetics,” he wrote, and “the ‘modernist’ influence, when present, has only manifested itself as alienated mimicry.”[4] Two decades later, two pathbreaking African scholars agreed, albeit without Hennebelle’s condescension. Frank Ukadike identified independent Black African cinema with pre-colonial oral traditions, praising Ababacar Samb-Makharam’s Kodou (1970), for example, for “a cinematic language that gives priority to furthering an awareness of traditional culture.”[5] And Manthia Diawara divided thirty years worth of sub-Saharan African cinema into three basic categories—“social realist” narratives, historical fictions staging African opposition to colonial domination, and “return to the source” films—all of which sided with tradition against modernity and none of which were modernist.[6] Even more recently, James Genova characterized the first decades of the West African cinema as made up of docu-fictions that were “derived from the conventions of orature rooted in local cultures” and “realist.”[7]

African cinema scholarship has paid as little attention to cinephilia as to modernism, given both the strong association between the two and the fact that the African love objects of Euro-American cinephiles have been few and far between. References to cinephilia in Africa have thus considered only the love that African filmmakers might bear for some segment of the Euro-American cinematic canon. Taking the example of Nollywood, however, Aboubakar Sanogo has sketched a shift from an auteurist cinephilia associated with feature, festival films by great African directors to one marked by the mass consumption in homes and very local screening spaces of first video, then digital entertainment films.[8] I propose another adaptation here, with a group of West and Central African films from the late nineteen sixties and early seventies serving as my case study. Made in the era immediately following political independence, these works followed in the wake of a French colonial cinematic tradition dating to the first years of the twentieth century. Ostensibly nonfictional travelogs, expedition films, and ethnographic documentaries, consistently popular in France, claimed to portray and explain sub-Saharan African landscapes and people objectively and comprehensively.

Cameroonian critic and filmmaker Urbain Dia-Moukori expressed his frustration with such films in a 1967 essay, urging newly independent African directors to take aesthetic risks. “Please, no nighttime tom-tom on the village square!” he pleaded; “I can affirm that I have never heard as many tom-toms as in the European theaters where films about Africa were shown.”[9] As I have shown elsewhere, many early African filmmakers heeded Dia-Moukori’s call by responding with their own ethnographic documentaries.[10] Others rejected ethnography, opting instead for characteristically modernist strategies: abstraction, fragmentation, juxtaposition, and reflexivity. The films I will examine here, made in Chad, Gabon, and Senegal between 1966 and 1972, use film to explore African modernity while developing experimental African film styles to dismantle and replace colonial narratives. Building on Gikandi’s insights, I understand the modernism of these films in the context of their directors’ keen awareness of the Euro-American cinematic canon’s relationship to Africa and equally profound investment in the need for an African cinema to counter it. And once we identify and analyze early examples of cinematic modernism in sub-Saharan Africa cinema, we can understand their particular version of cinephilia, one grounded in a rejection of colonial representations of Africa and Africans. I have suggested in my title that this cinephilia is intimately bound up with its opposite, cinephobia, although, contra the dictionary definition of phobia, this dislike was not an irrational one.

Born in Abéché, in eastern Chad, Edouard Sailly completed only primary school before working first as a mechanic and then as the projectionist at the Normandy Theater in Fort-Lamy, now N’Djamena. Just after independence, he won a scholarship to spend two years in Paris, where he held internships in a Kodak laboratory and the Actualités Françaises newsreel company. Upon his return home, Sailly became the director of the Cinema Service of Chad’s Ministry of Information, where he was responsible for newsreel production. Over the course of a decade, he also made a series of short documentary films representing his country’s landscapes and cultural traditions. Les Pecheurs du Chari (Chari Fishermen, 1964), which details the fishing customs and economy of the region, was followed by Le Lac Tchad (Lake Chad), Les Abattoirs de Forcha (The Slaughterhouses of Forcha), Ballet Tchadien (Chadian Ballet), and À la découverte du Tchad (Discovering Chad). Sailly’s Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966, 15 mn) was completely different. Shot in 35mm black and white, the soundtrack consists only of repetitive instrumental music, without the voice-over narration of his earlier shorts. Fleeting images of a laughing boy and a few sentences on screen as the film opens hint at a story; “The loss of his mother is first a shock, a perhaps unhealable wound in the life of a boy. It is also often the beginning of a voyage toward the worse or the better. Memories remain, however, and it is a bit as if the absent one was still speaking.” Yet the only character in Le Troisième jour is not a boy but a man, and we learn nothing about his mother.

From the outset, after the evocation of an abstract voyage linked to memories of the dead, Sailly’s spectator is disoriented by a series of shots from varying angles and without countershots, linked by montage and rhythmic repetition. Neither a fictional story nor an informational narrative emerges to bind them into an intelligible whole. An image of two men fishing on the bank of a river gives way to a low-angle shot of a group of people crossing a bridge, carrying a coffin, then to a high-angle shot from the bridge of the river. Another low-angle shot of the people on the bridge follows, seemingly from the opposite bank and without an anchoring point of view (figs. 1–4). An unidentified man walks over an arid landscape, then crosses the bridge alone. His journey continues in fragments, through a seemingly abandoned village, on a boat on the river, and through the market street of a larger town, where Sailly’s camera for the first time shares several images of daily life (fig. 5). When the man is arrested and taken to a police station, a dissolve returns us to the shots of the bridge and funeral procession that began the film, now focalizing them as if they were his memories while at the same time including him in the images. After leaving the station, the man recedes into the distance only to reappear in a low-angle shot from the front that breaks the 180-degree rule, his face obscured by the glare of the sun. Le Troisième jour concludes as it began, with the river, first a series of shots from multiple angles of fishermen throwing their nets and then a final, long shot of two men crossing in a boat. Although this focus recalls Sailly’s earlier, ethnographic Les Pecheurs du Chari, the narrative has been shattered into poetic reflections. Rather than teach us about Chadian fishing practices, Sailly challenged our vision of Africa and Africans.

Two men standing in field
Fig. 1. Still from Edouard Sailly's Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966).
Men standing on bridge
Fig. 2. Still from Edouard Sailly's Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966).
View from bridge
Fig. 3. Still from Edouard Sailly's Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966).
People on bridge
Fig. 4. Still from Edouard Sailly's Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966).
People in market
Fig. 5. Still from Edouard Sailly's Le Troisième jour (The Third Day, 1966).

In Sur le sentier du requiem (On the Path to Requiem, 1971, 14 mn), shot in 16mm black and white, Pierre-Marie Dong similarly refused coherent narration. Born and raised in Libreville, Gabon, Dong studied filmmaking in the late nineteen sixties at the prestigious French Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC) in Paris. When he returned home, he worked for Gabonese Radio and Television (RTG) and made several commissioned documentary shorts, including Gabon, pays de contrastes (Gabon, Country of Contrasts, 1969). With Sur le sentier du requiem, Dong changed course. In its first shot, the director appears holding a movie camera; the camera filming him pulls back, and he turns slightly to face it. Unidentified footage of Black and white men and women—cyclists on a busy street, ballerinas and boxers, toddlers playing near a palm tree—follows, intercut with newsreel war footage—bombs falling, tanks and airplanes, and soldiers running—all without explanatory commentary. Images of young people dancing in a nightclub are then intercut with footage of police repression of mass demonstrations in Africa and Asia. Shots of an unidentified man in a white robe walking across sand, then lighting a patch of nearby grass on fire, are added to this series of discontinuous images of both individual and global, both positive and negative aspects of modern life.

Dong’s film comes to a close with images of the quintessential symbol of postcolonial African modernity, an Air Afrique plane, from which both Black and white businessmen disembark. These are dramatically juxtaposed with footage of a young Black woman and a young white woman posing on a beach in matching white minidresses, then of an African man walking toward them, arms outstretched. This very gendered choice, never made, leads to the last shot of the film, a Black man’s shackled foot stepping across a log in the equatorial forest. The spectator, at first guided to understand the explosive footage of the era as if focalized through Dong’s on-screen camera, now must also tie it and him to the enslaved body of these closing images. Sur le sentier du requiem in its form embodies the turbulence of nineteen sixties Africa in a global context, the options offered by independence nonetheless tied tightly to the legacy of the colonial past.

The fragmentation and reflexivity of Sailly’s and Dong’s films generate a non-narrative limbo that lies somewhere between documentary and fiction. A second pair of films made during the same period leans less toward the avant-garde and more toward political modernism, a term used by András Bálint Kovács to describe a set of now canonical Western and Eastern European films released between 1967 and 1975.[11] Simon Augé, who was born in Port-Gentil, Gabon, trained in Paris at the French Office of Radio and Television (ORTF) and the National Audiovisual Institute (INA), then returned home. His first film, produced by Gabonese Radio and Television, knits together an extraordinary variety of documents, interviews, and acted scenes to retrace Gabonese history from the fifteenth century to the present. Augé conceived of Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972, 50 mn) as a work of history, “a return to the past . . . always aiming to make known what we really are,” contrasting his perspective to that of the colonial histories and media products that had created false stereotypes and preconceptions.[12]

Augé co-wrote his film’s voice-over commentary with Gaston Rapontchombo, Director of Archives at the Gabonese National Library. Beginning in the prehistoric period, objects, drawings, and documents from these archives illustrate a relatively quick overview through the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century as a blank map is filled in with the names of regions and towns. The map also bears the names of the European nations that passed through, along with the materials and numbers of enslaved people they took away with them. Augé then focuses his analysis of the colonial and postcolonial periods around the development of Gabon’s capital city, tracing the growth of Libreville’s European and African neighborhoods to the contemporary period, at which point his style changes unexpectedly from expository nonfiction to acted fiction. An elite, African man in a European suit and elegant shoes, played by compatriot and fellow filmmaker Pierre-Marie Dong, gets out of a car that has gotten stuck in mud. He walks to a village, where an older woman performs a Bwiti initiation ritual, hitting him with leafy branches, with which he then scrubs himself (fig. 6). They speak to each other in Fang, and Augé does not provide subtitles.

Man and woman talking
Fig. 6. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).

From this allegorical shedding of neo-colonial garb and language, Augé returns just as suddenly to archival documentary materials with a photo from August 27, 1960, the day Gabonese independence was proclaimed. The third part of Il était une fois . . . Libreville is again different from the first two, alternating images of modern construction in Libreville and praise of President Omar Bongo. In a series of interviews, inhabitants of the capital are optimistic that the modernization of a city need not be accompanied by the loss of its ancestral heritage. Augé then incorporates a second fictional scene into his film. A Gabonese family, comfortably seated in a living room, is watching television. Spectators see, on the family’s screen within ours, a television news announcer who states that two men are about to walk on the moon. “I think Houston is calling,” he says, answering his phone—“hello, Houston?” (fig. 7). Augé then cuts back and forth, in a shot-counter-shot sequence, between family members watching, mouths agape, and newsreel images of the first moon landing (figs. 8–11). This brief fiction, completely different from the first, instead of staging a return to pre-colonial tradition, enacts Africa’s central role in the world’s scientific future.[13] Augé has brought Libreville to Houston, Houston to Libreville, and both to the moon, and Il était une fois . . . Libreville concludes with shots of modern apartment blocks, gas stations, schools, and government buildings.

Man talking on phone
Fig. 7. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).
Man rising from chair
Fig. 8. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).
Image of moon landing
Fig. 9. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).
Family sitting watching television
Fig. 10. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).
Image from moon landing
Fig. 11. Still from Simon Augé's Il était une fois . . . Libreville (Once Upon a Time . . . Libreville, 1972).

In Senegal, in the watershed year of 1968, Djibril Diop Mambety had made an equally experimental film about a different African capital city. Mambety was an autodidact when it came to the cinema, having taken only a few theater classes in Dakar before acting at the national Daniel Sorano Theater. His second short, Contras’ City (1968, 22 mn), was shot in six days on 16mm with a shoestring budget. Although Mambety’s film, like Augé’s, addresses African history, it contains no archival images. Instead, the juxtaposition of shots and an accompanying ironic, dialogic voice-over commentary expose the colonial roots of Dakar’s present. As Contras’ City begins, images of the city’s colonial architecture appear from different angles. The camera zooms in and out on wrought iron gates, then pans down from the sky to the Hôtel de Ville. An earnest, female French voice breaks into the symphonic classical music on the soundtrack to misidentify our location. “O, my sweet France,” she says, and a sarcastic, male Senegalese voice responds, “Her France . . . Well, my dear, this is Dakar.” Continuing its downward movement, the camera arrives at a Senegalese flag, at which point the sound of a scratched record interrupts and then cuts off the music. When the camera pulls back, still in front of the formerly French, now Senegalese City Hall, we see a man leading a horse-drawn cart, pulling a white cameraman and our Black and white voice-over narrators, director Mambety and script girl Inge Hirschnitz (figs. 12–13). In this reflexive and cinephilic reference to pioneering Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s iconic Borom Sarret (The Cart Driver, 1963), often considered the very first Black African film, Mambety asserts the Africanness of his documentary in the face of the ostentatiously nonnative style and history of the building he has shown us (fig. 14).

People walking in front of building
Fig. 12. Still from Djibril Diop Mambety's Contras’ City (1968).
Crew filming woman on cart
Fig. 13. Still from Djibril Diop Mambety's Contras’ City (1968).
Man with horse
Fig. 14. Still from Djibril Diop Mambety's Contras’ City (1968).

Instead of tragedy, Mambety saw humor in what he called the “aesthetic contradictions” of his home city.[14] From a voice-over dialogue that introduces the Sorano Theater, built in 1966 for the pan-African Festival of Negro Arts, he moves to the other side of the bridge featured in Sembene’s La Noire de . . . (Black Girl, 1966), still bearing the same Air Afrique advertisement, a neighborhood whose inhabitants live in rows of shacks with tin roofs. A series of close-up shots shows them working and shopping in street markets; a passing man with long dreadlocks is singled out by the female narrator, who comments, “Oh, a hippie!” Her counterpart, suddenly informative, corrects her and explains that this man is a Mouride and follower of spiritual leader Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba (fig. 15). When she follows up by asking if he himself is also Muslim, his joking tone returns and Mambety, whose father was an imam, subverts the film’s sole piece of ethnographic information with, “oh, sort of.” Pursuing the theme of religion back to the colonial Cathedral of African Memory, Mambety then takes us to the train station, where his cart driver returns to close the film. Contras’ City, its inflected English title a short escape from the suffocation of francophonie, explores and mocks the entanglements of neocolonial architecture and culture, denying any possible return to pre-colonial traditions while upholding the role of African cinema in the representation of African modernity. 

Man standing on road
Fig. 15. Still from Djibril Diop Mambety's Contras’ City (1968).

The standard narrative of the first decades of sub-Saharan African cinema, as written by European, North American, and African scholars, has focused on slow-paced, conventionally realist fictions with straightforward themes and film styles. Those films that manifested what Hennebelle in scare quotes called “‘modernist’ influence” have either been criticized as abject imitations or, as with Med Hondo’s astonishing Soleil Ô (1968), remembered as rare exceptions produced in European exile. Yet even though Sailly, Dong, and Augé trained in France, they and Mambety were based in Africa for the entirety of their careers. By the time Hennebelle derided the idea of an African modernism, African filmmakers in Africa had already proven themselves skilled at taking cinematic modernism in new, original, and locally significant directions, in Gikandi’s words, “creat[ing] the space in which colonial ideas about the African could be displaced.” Their work has been for the most part forgotten, however, and the films I have discussed are without sequels.

Sailly, Dong, and Augé not only did not continue their modernist experiments but within a few years stopped making films altogether, instead working for their respective national television and film agencies. Although Le Troisième jour was screened at the First Tashkent Festival of African and Asian Cinema and won a Grand Prize at France’s Saint-Cast Festival, Sailly worked as a photographer and in television for the rest of his life, summoned to governmental service by five of Chad’s first six presidents. Briefly recovered for the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s “Where is Africa?” program in 2010, several months before Sailly’s death, his most interesting film has once again disappeared.[15] After Sur le sentier du requiem and Identité (Identity, 1972), Dong produced propaganda films for Gabonese President Omar Bongo, including one based on a script authored by Bongo’s wife, and eventually joined Bongo’s cabinet. Augé’s film Mbigou, poésie du Gabon (Mbigou, Gabonese Poetry, 1976), an ethnographic short produced a few years after Il était une fois . . . Libreville, would be his last before becoming the director of Gabonese Radio and Television and, several years later, of Gabon’s National Center for Cinema. Le Troisième jour and Il était une fois . . . Libreville are both held by the Cinémathèque Afrique of the Institut Français, available under extremely limited conditions via a network of agencies promoting French culture abroad. They can otherwise be viewed along with Sur le sentier du requiem only in Room P of the French National Library in Paris, all three works trapped in the rights issues that are the legacy of postcolonial French funding for African cinema. Mambety, now regarded as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s best and most idiosyncratic filmmakers, is the only of this group of directors to have made subsequent films, if few in number, which are widely available. A restored 4K version of Contras’ City, perhaps his least-known work, was included on the 2021 Criterion Collection DVD release of modernist feature fiction Touki Bouki (1973).

The contemporary sub-Saharan African cinephilia noted by Sanogo is the happy consequence of a long-awaited availability of regionally produced genre films. Yet just as cinephilia in Africa as elsewhere need not be necessarily bound to modernist filmmaking, there are reasons not to insist on a disconnection, whether in the past or the present. Posing and responding to the question of why independence movements and decolonization had gone largely unrepresented in the African cinema, Diawara at the turn of the twenty-first century identified the genre of the experimental documentary as a potential solution.[16] We have seen, though, that African filmmakers working in Africa were representing and enacting decolonization in experimental documentary form within a few years of independence.[17] The failure of these films to gain recognition within the global art cinema that attracts cinephiles speaks volumes about the African cinema’s place in film history, criticism, and theory. Neither “alienated mimicry” nor oxymoron, African modernism in the nineteen sixties and seventies knotted cinephobia and cinephilia to represent an independent modernity shaped by colonialism. A new understanding and range for cinephilia enables us not only to recover such work but also to rethink modernist cinema for an African context, thereby revising the limited expectations that continue to constrain filmmakers and other media artists.



[1] Samba Félix Ndiaye, “Le temps des grands frères,” in 18ème Festival International de films ethnographiques et sociologiques: cinéma du réel (Paris: Centre National Georges Pompidou, 1996), 49. During the same period in Niamey, Oumarou Ganda, Moustapha Alassane, and Djingarey Maïga participated in a ciné-club hosted by the Franco-Nigerien Cultural Center.

[2] See, for example, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015) and Simon Gikandi, “Modernism in the World,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 419–424.

[3] Simon Gikandi, “The Short Century: On Modernism and Nationalism,” New Formations, no. 51 (2004): 14, 24.

[4] Guy Hennebelle, Les Cinémas africains en 1972 (Dakar: Société Africaine d’Édition, 1972), 100.

[5] Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 25–29, 170.

[6] Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 140–166.

[7] James Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 93, 113.

[8] Aboubakar Sanogo, “Regarding Cinephilia and Africa,” Framework 50, no. 1–2 (2009): 226–228.

[9] Urbain Dia-Moukori, “Intuition d’un langage cinématographique africain,” Présence Africaine, no. 61 (1967): 217.

[10] Rachel Gabara, “Complex Realism: Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and the Emergence of West African Documentary Film,” Black Camera 11, no. 2 (2020): 32–59.

[11] András Bálint Kovács, “Political Modernism, 1967–1975,” in Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 349–382. For the political modernism of Euro-American film theory, see D. N. Rodowick’s earlier The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[12] Victor Bachy, Le Cinéma au Gabon (Bruxelles: Éditions OCIC, 1986), 86.

[13] Augé’s film contains echoes of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso’s short-lived and perhaps ironically conceived Zambian Space Program (1964–5), born with independence and remembered in Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s short film Afronauts (2014). See Namwali Serpell, “The Zambian ‘Afronaut’ Who Wanted to Join the Space Race,” The New Yorker, March 11, 2017,

[14] “Diop-Mambety Djibril,” L’Afrique littéraire et artistique, no. 49 (1978): 43.

[15] Lindiwe Dovey, Curating Africa in the Age of Film Festivals (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 70.

[16] Manthia Diawara, “African Cinema and Decolonization,” in The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Munich: Prestel, 2001), 346–350.

[17] For a detailed exploration of such work in Morocco, see Peter Limbrick’s excellent “Vernacular Modernism, Film Culture, and Moroccan Short Film and Documentary,” Framework 56, no. 2 (2015): 388–413.