BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI'S NEW FILM, BESIEGED, IS on one level (the intimate level) an intense love story about an old-world European (David Thewlis, playing a composer) who falls in love and lust with a modern, even futuristic African (Thandie Newton, here a brilliant medical student). We can easily understand Thewlis' infinite obsession as a consequence of Newton's extraordinary beauty, which could dazzle the eye of any mind into madness. But on another level (the social level), the racial arrangement between her (as the African object) and him (as the European subject) has a significant historical and political charge. Indeed, Thandie Newton's career as an actress--Flirting, Jefferson in Paris, Besieged--has been characterized by this role: the desired African object. What makes Besieged work as well as it does is that Bertolucci is obviously playing on this disparity.

The black African woman--specifically, the body of the black African woman--as the focus of desire, as the thing pursued, possessed, or subdued either by force or seduction, is a frequent theme (deliberately or inadvertently) in many films that deal with "African reality." Even with a quick look at two African films screened at this year's Seattle International Film Festival we again find this theme; this game of control, possession, and power over the rich and fertile resource that is the African woman's body. Indeed, when we chance to see Thandie's full breasts in Besieged, they are as ripe and heavy as tropical fruit, which is the very condition--for both black and white males--of the black female body: fecund and ready to be plucked.

In Lucy's Revenge, a delightful film by the Polish director Janusz Mrozowski (who now lives in Paris), the history of Africa, from the dawn of time to the new democratic states emerging from the ashes of one-party states, is constructed as an elaborate struggle between multiple interests (European, African, male, female) to possess and control one African woman. In fact, in Lucy's Revenge power is symbolized by the physical possession of her vagina, which has sharp teeth.

In another delightful African film, I.D., by the black director Mweze Ngangura, we again have at the center a black woman, this one in Brussels, who is desired and pursued incessantly by both white cops and black crooks (all of whom the director sympathizes with, as if it were only natural to desire and control the body of the African woman). The proposals, the offers, the harassment doesn't stop for the African woman until her father takes her back to her home country, Zaire.

Surely, it will be a while yet before African women have a chance to break out of this imposed structure. When it happens, though--when African women relocate themselves as the subject (the director) of film instead of the object of its gaze, I'm sure they'll find and express a whole new set of obsessions.

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