September 4, 2005
Chef! opens to images of people in traditional ceremonial robes and western-styled business suits heading towards a cultural exhibition of ancient tribal rhythms and dances, the road towards the event anachronistically demarcated by a large Fanta corporate sponsorship banner that frames the main entrance. The auspicious occasion is the unveiling of a monument in commemoration of Kamga Joseph II, the western-friendly ancestral chief of the village of Bandjoun (and ancestor of filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno), who ruled one of the largest villages in western Cameroon at the turn of the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, the man "who tried to straddle the two worlds" initiated the path towards the modernization of the village by imposing European culture even as he sought to retain ancestral traditions. Now, decades later, it is in this curious spectacle of cultural celebration turned pro-government rally - where government officials mingled freely with other village leaders to illustrate the intrinsically incestuous, cultural fraternity of "chefs" (chiefs) - coupled with the filmmaker's coincidental purchase of a souvenir calendar written in the regional language of Ghomala that outlines the unwritten, traditional "Rules of the Husband in his Home" (that anoints every man as the indisputable chief of the household) that Téno seeks to examine the conflicted legacy of this double-edged policy in modern-day Cameroon where half of the population are "chiefs" according to ancestral tradition, leading to an inhumane cycle of the nation's collective imprisonment by chiefs who defer only to higher chiefs, unaccountable to the very people over whom they govern.
An initial glimpse of this residual legacy that has contributed to a pervasive cultural anachronism that has undermined social progress is seen in the roadside capture by a vigilante mob on the morning after the celebration of a young chicken thief who, without the presence of Téno and his camera, would have undoubtedly been beaten to death. With the mob persuaded by a village elder to instead take the young boy to the village chief (who, in the meantime, has been forced to strip off his clothes (as dictated by ancient tradition) before starting on his humiliating public march), the pattern of self-absolution, blind deference to authority, and inconsistent, open-ended justice continues when the chief is reluctant to personally sanction the boy's beating, and instead decides to send him to the police station, rationalizing that only the police are empowered to conduct such a beating with impunity.
Another manifestation is revealed in an interview with the director of a women's crisis center who remarks that Cameroon is still governed by an archaic combination of the French Civil Code of 1804 (long after the French, themselves, have updated the code) and unwritten, ancestral tradition defined by a patriarchal society, pointing out inconsistent legal definitions such as the notion that a man can only be is only guilty of adultery if it is committed in his own home, while a woman can be guilty of committing adultery anywhere. Moreover, with young girls (often from poor, provincial families) entering into undocumented, traditional marriages rather than civil marriages, many discover too late that they (and their children) do not have any legal rights to property or support when their husbands drive them away from their homes years later, since they are not considered legally married.
The concluding example is illustrated through the inner workings of the justice system, as seen through the eyes of Pius Njawé, editor of the independent publication, Le Messager, who had run afoul with the government after reporting on President Paul Biya's abrupt departure from a soccer match. Encountering a justice system rife with corruption (such as a codified bribery schedule to ensure even the simple procedural act of filing formal charges), Njawé becomes a first-hand witness to the systematic imprisonment of the poor and disenfranchised (who cannot afford to pay the bribes and therefore, languish in jails without ever receiving a trial).
Téno's complex and organic, yet cohesive and insightful essay is an incisive portrait of the culturally ingrained, self-destructive fusion of perpetuated, inhumane (and patriarchal) ancestral traditions and obsolete, subjugative colonial-era civil codes that continue to enable the political mechanism of dictatorships, widespread corruption, social stratification, and human rights violation. Inevitably, what emerges in Téno's penetrating examination, is not only of the social, political, and economic malaise that continues to plague Cameroonian contemporary history under the "peaceful democracy" pyramidal power structure of the presidency, but also reflects the endemic state of many post-colonial African countries at the end of the twentieth century. As the filmmaker similarly (and incisively) articulates in his earlier documentary Africa, I Will Fleece You, native empowerment comes, not from archaic (and increasingly arcane) birthright self-anointments of chiefdom, but from education, social awareness, and humanity.