Documentary Reviews

The Bronze Men of Cameroon (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Florence Ayisi

Running time: 55mins

For more information on Florence Ayisi’s films, visit her IMDb page.

One of the chief criticisms of globalisation is that it transmogrifies historic cultures, sanding them down to a one-size-fits-all homogeny centring, on the consumerist norms of hegemonic Western powers – be they European or North American. While that particular topic might have been done slightly to death, there is now an interesting paradox emerging, where the cultures reshaped in the image of Western dominance are now facing a new wave of globalisation from a different front, and are arguing that this is threatening to extinguish the new old way of life they adapted to over the last century.

As the global economic might of the US, UK and France wanes, spurring their (at least temporary) retreat from imperialist adventures, the rising star of new superpowers such as China is encroaching on the cultures reshaped in the image of their former colonisers. The unfolding situation is one of the most interesting topics touched upon by Florence Ayisi’s feature documentary The Bronze Men of Cameroon – a slow-moving portrait of a community of bronze artisans in Foumban, Cameroon’s self-styled ‘City of Arts.’

The film takes an in-depth and intimate look at the lives of the Bamum People, a century after one of the People’s Kings re-engineered its culture to prioritise the production of bronze sculptures. According to testimony from several Bamum craftspeople, many of their People were originally nomadic, while the creation of bronze art was a niche aspect of their culture. When their King noticed the affinity French colonists had for the art, however, he oversaw a dramatic shift in the way they lived in order to cater to this demand, and bring a steady source of income to his people.

Over the coming years, hundreds of Bamum would take up a tricky and visibly dangerous method for crafting bronze-work. Trampling together the rich local earth and horse dung to create clay moulds embellished with bees-wax, local foundries then hand-poured molten bronze into the constructions, which could be polished and sold. The need for stability to maintain the foundry-system this created meant that the once-mobile Bamum became increasingly stationary, as they became part of a largely pre-industrial factory line.

For generations, we are told, this process involved nearly everyone in the community. However, as the Bamum have become more settled, and for a time prospered from the sale of their art – which in the absence of French colonisers remains popular with “white tourists,” their children have begun to look elsewhere to build their futures. A number of the artists complain that young people “don’t want to learn” the trade of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, instead going to college and university, training for a new vocation. In this way, the older Bamum (one of whom is still working at 93) worry, their culture is in danger of dying out.

Exacerbating this is the apparent threat of a wave of neo-colonialism. Chinese traders have arrived, and have no interest in trading with the Bamum for bronze artefacts – instead buying up large amounts of raw bronze to ship home to Chinese manufacturers, driving up the costs of the remaining bronze the Bamum need for their art. The arrival of Chinese traders is literally described as “an invasion,” though it is worthy of note that they are purchasing the resources from people in Cameroon – so portraying the Chinese as faceless bogeymen solely responsible for the downfall of Bamum tradition is probably a little harsh. This brings me to one of the film’s biggest problems; its willingness to take everything it is told at face value.

Ayisi and her team do not seem to have gone to the effort of asking any Chinese residents of Foumban about this – or even possible tensions they face living alongside people so overtly hostile to their ‘invaders.’ At the same time, there is no attempt to trace the local businesspeople that have obtained sole ownership of a communal resource, and are selling it on without consideration for the Bamum. Indeed, there is no attempt to find out just why none of the young Bamum fancy working elbow-deep in horse-shit into their early nineties, or what – if anything – could be done to lure them back.

At the same time, while the sadness expressed by the Bamum that their culture may soon be ‘lost’ is clearly genuine, the film might have done more to explore exactly what this culture is. As we have been told, they used to be nomadic, and most of the brass foundries were formed due to the King noticing colonisers liked such produce. The key aspect of their culture here seems more to be that they are capable of adapting to thrive in challenging environments. In that case, why not find a new way to shift?

Indeed, many of the Bamum seem to believe that they are more entrepreneurial than industrial – with one craftsman in particular proudly wearing a t-shirt featuring the Gordon Gekko-esque slogan; “If you can’t beat them, buy them.” However, having survived colonialism without the brutal pillaging seen elsewhere in Africa, as the Bamum’s children seem destined for more lucrative work elsewhere, and as sales of the bronze goods to tourists dwindle, the creators seem to only be interested in propping up a way of life which has served its purpose.

The sustainability of relying on tourists was already questionable before the pandemic – but assuming physical sales in the pandemic fell through the floor, it might be worth the incumbent Bamum King’s while to look at investing in some kind of e-commerce. And I know that suggestion is riddled with white privilege and smugness, but if preserving a culture centring on selling wares to white Europeans, that’s where most of us are doing our shopping these days. It would do more for the Bamum than asking for airports not to tax their goods when travellers look to take them home.

All in all then, for a film which goes into such lengthy and excruciating detail depicting the crafting process (at least a fifth of the screen-time is devoted to that), The Bronze Men of Cameroon is a little surface level. While a short film might have been forgiven for that, a feature with the time and space to get into the nitty-gritty of the situation could definitely have done more to address it, especially when its director is a Professor of International Documentary Film. I don’t doubt I will be taken to task by Ayisi for some of the clumsy assumptions I have probably made in this review – and in many cases I will deserve it – but for all its talk around the constructs of culture and identity, her film doesn’t really get to the root of how either can remain relevant for the people of Foumban. Instead, it seems preoccupied with pining for one form of imperialism which is being exchanged for another.

One of the older Bamum is a little more grounded in his hopes for the future, stating late on that even if his way of life dies out, this film stands as a record, which he hopes his great grandchildren will see, and be proud of this part of their identity. This film is certainly well-crafted and thorough enough to serve that noble purpose. Beyond that, however, it seems unwilling to ask more complex and awkward questions surrounding culture, identity and capitalism, all of which need addressing if there is to be a meaningful dialogue on preserving the Bronze Men’s legacy.

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