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Author: Sheila Petty
Title: Miseria: the evolution of a unique melodramatic form
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Miseria: the evolution of a unique melodramatic form
Sheila Petty

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 19-20, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Sheila Petty is Associate Professor of Film and Video at the University of Regina, Canada.

Miseria: The Evolution of a Unique Melodramatic Form


Melodramatic form has been increasingly recognized as an important theoretical concept for film and television studies since the 1970s, even though critics admit that it is "notoriously difficult to define." [1] In his article, "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," [2] Thomas Elsaesser provides an excellent discussion on the various types of melodrama and how these cinematic modes of expression evolved. He distinguishes two veins. One leads from "the late medieval morality play, the popular gestes and other forms of oral narrative and drama" [3] and functions to create myth rather than to provoke emotions in the spectator through psychologically motivated correspondence with the protagonists. The other more predominant vein leads directly to the Hollywood style of family melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s and the more recently produced US prime-time serials Dallas and Dynasty, and is based on the romantic drama which emphasizes "private feelings and interiorized (puritan, pietist) codes of morality and conscience." [4] This type of melodrama is dramatic narrative in which the characters' emotional and psychological predicaments cause advancement of the plot.

Critical writing on film and television melodrama has tended to focus on this latter vein, reconstituting it as an object of social criticism. And feminist interest in the subject has resulted in the use of melodrama, and more particularly its subtype, the woman's picture, as tools for understanding women's position in patriarchal society. The work of such critics as Annette Kuhn, Pam Cook, and Laura Mulvey, [5]— informed by various strands of feminist thought on visual representation and cultural production—posits as central to these "gynocentric" forms certain defining generic characteristics such as the "construction of narratives motivated by female desire and processes of spectator identification governed by female point of view." [6] Not surprisingly, these narratives, which are aimed at female audiences, deal with aspects of women's emotional and psychological experiences and concentrate on the point of view of woman as victim. Thus, the masochism of the melodrama, with its acts of self-destruction or social conformity, is foregrounded through female characters who sacrifice their own goals for the happiness of others. Chuck Kleinhans has argued elsewhere that this phenomenon bears relation to the actual lived emotional experience of women in our culture. [7] Finally, in order to heighten the intense emotional suffering of the characters as victims, melodramatic texts create excess—a split between the narrative and the mise en scène—through certain culturally-specific conventions of camera work and editing, and works to open up a textual space where dominant ideology is exposed.

Since not all melodrama is based on the emotional and psychological predicaments of a central female character as victim, can the cultural precepts of western melodrama be applied to other cultures? Perhaps the melodramatic is manipulated and read differently in other cinematic and social systems. And even if the melodramatic impulse itself is universal, it would be problematic to assume that its specific manifestations could apply equally across all time, cultural groups, and historical moments. It is the goal of this paper to demonstrate how Miseria (1990), [8] a Cameroonian television family melodrama in a five-part mini-series format, subverts notions of female-centered point of view, the woman-as-victim trope, gendered spectatorship, and psychological excess in order to create a textual system that addresses all Cameroonians and their lived experience. Through an analysis of the narrative structure, cinematic grammar, and dialectical content of the first episode of the series, I will argue that Miseria does not contain any of the above mentioned generic characteristics of the woman's picture simply because the goal of the mini-series is much broader than the representation of women's position in society.

Miseria's narrative focuses on the life of a very poor family, consisting of a single mother, her daughter, and son, all of whom live in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The mother, Asso, works as a fruit vendor at the local market, the son hauls merchandise in a push-cart, and the daughter, Assoko, is a high school student. In the face of economic misery, the mother, on the advice of a neighbor, encourages Assoko to prostitute herself. She contracts a serious venereal disease and is saved by a young engineer who falls hopelessly in love with her.

It would be tempting to read the events of the narrative as "happening" to Assoko and thus to focus on her as the protagonist of Miseria. Indeed, in Hollywood film the narrative is structured around a central character whose motives, desires, and plights push the narrative forward and determine the fates of other minor characters. The psychology of the central character is developed during the film's exposition (the time up to the first plot point) or narrative set-up. Robert Allen has argued that in many respects television soap opera style is a continuation of Hollywood stylistic practice, but in terms of narrative, soap operas "contain upwards of forty regularly appearing characters, and while some are more prominent than others at any given time, none can be singled out as the motor of the narrative. A great deal might happen to individual characters—multiple marriages, pregnancy, amnesia, temporary blindness, disabling accidents, and so forth—but very little happens to alter the nature of the community." [9] According to Jane Feuer, the individual characters in this type of community are closely related either by blood or by marriage, and their relationships and actions are expressed through scenes consisting of intense emotional confrontations. [10]Miseria, however, does not frame Assoko as a central individualized character, nor does it set up a multitude of characters whose interpersonal relationships are based on emotional confrontations.

The first episode of the mini-series exposes the family's poverty and economic misery and lays the foundation for later change. Scene one begins with the brother struggling to push his loaded cart up a steep hill only to be fleeced when the job is completed by the obviously wealthy woman who has employed him. The placement of this act as part of the narrative set-up foregrounds corruption as a key issue in the mini-series.

Scene two introduces Asso at her fruit stand. She serves a well-dressed man who will eventually meet Assoko and lead her into prostitution. In a series of close-up shots intercut with the master shot, he discusses the quality of Asso's fruit. The purpose of this scene is to introduce the viewer to the man and to establish a contrast between his economic situation and that of the woman. He is well-dressed, buys only the best fruit, and has prestige. Interestingly enough, rather than providing psychological character content, Ngono Ambassa introduces him as a typal character in order to emphasize the power relations and class system in this society.

Scene three introduces the viewer to Assoko. She and her friend Nanou are studying at Nanou's house when the latter asks, "You've never told me what your parents do." Assoko's reply is a signpost of important narrative information concerning the family, for the viewer then learns who the cartpusher and fruitseller are in association with Assoko. Contrary to Hollywood narrative cinema with its focus on one central character in the first scenes of the film, the reply is an indication that all three characters are important to the mini-series. At this point it becomes apparent that not only has her brother had to leave school to work because Asso could no longer pay his tuition, but things are also going poorly at the fruit stand.

The first three scenes are set-up scenes in which screen time is split almost equally between mother's, son's, and daughter's plights. No individual character emerges strongly from this set-up. Rather, the viewer is introduced to the circumstances (economic deprivation) that will necessitate certain choices of action, and what the remainder of the mini-series bears out is that it is the effects of these choices on the family that are the main thrust of the narrative.

This triad of scenes brings together all the threads of the narrative set-up and exposes the conflict around which the rest of the mini-series will revolve. This conflict is not a conflict of character and is therefore not individualized or gender specific. In fact, it is a conflict of ideology rather than psychology and centers on the issues of poverty, economic corruption, and class difference in "postcolonial" Cameroon. These issues and how family members deal with them are of central concern to Ngono Ambassa, the writer/director of Miseria. Episode one ends, not with an interpersonal relationship to be resolved, but with a very concrete material problem: Assoko's school fees are due and the family has no money.

In describing the narrative structure of western soaps, Robert Allen argues that their middle-class universe allows for a suppression of material concerns. According to him:

The economic exchanges that are so much a part of the lives of its viewers have little or no part in the soap opera world. Money seldom changes hands as a part of everyday life in the soap opera world; the cost of products is almost never mentioned; the businesses for which soap opera characters work (or, more likely, which they own) seldom actually produce goods; characters almost never worry whether there will be enough money at the end of the month to pay bills. [11]

But money, and the lack thereof, are very real concerns in Miseria. Almost every scene in the first episode involves a bill to pay or an exchange of money between family members and other characters in the narrative. The function of this is to inform the viewer that not only is the family poor, but their poverty is not recent. Clearly, in terms of narrative structure, Ngono Ambassa has created a product that encourages viewer identification with these issues rather than with the characters themselves, and an analysis of Miseria's visual presentation will further support this.

Although Miseria follows a serialized form, a convention of western television soap opera, it does not adopt other conventions or generic characteristics of western film and television melodrama that work to create heavily psychoanalytical or emotional representations. For example, the woman-centered textual systems (construction of narratives motivated by female desire and processes of spectator identification governed by female point-of-view) described by Annette Kuhn [12] are dependent upon a governing set of structural principles such as repeated camera and editing conventions constructed within personal space in the texts.

According to Jane Feuer's view, conventions of shot-reverse shot cuts between actors' locked gazes, shot duration, musical underscoring, and the use of the zoom lens frequently conspire to create scenes of high melodrama. [13] Feuer writes that soaps

typically hold a shot on the screen for at least a 'beat' after the dialogue has ended, usually in combination with shot-reverse shot cuts between the actors' locked gazes. This conventional manner of closing a scene (usually accompanied by a dramatic burst of music) leaves a residue of emotional intensity just prior to a scene change or commercial break. It serves as a form of punctuation, signifying momentary closure, but it also carries meaning within the scene, a meaning connected to the intense interpersonal involvements each scene depicts. [14]

In Miseria, interpersonal involvements are not constructed through the use of the above cinematic conventions. In fact, these same conventions are subverted to create social or issue-oriented representations rather than psychoanalytical representations. For example, close-ups are not used to give full reign to emotionality as they would in a western soap, but rather to convey important narrative information. Thus, in scene two, the close-ups of the man explaining that he buys only the best fruit are meant to establish his wealth, and not an interpersonal relationship with Asso. This is underscored by the fact that these close-ups are directly intercut into the scene's master shot without any transitional shots once the scene's locale and main action have been established. A similar presentation of shots occurs in a later scene in which Asso is the customer. Again, the whole scene is presented in one master shot which begins with a long pan of Asso arriving at the butcher's stall. The camera then pans from a three-shot of Asso and the two butchers to a two-shot of the butchers and finally settles in a lengthy extreme close-up of one of them who complains to Asso that he is tired of her daily enquiries into the price of his meat. During the complaint, the camera focuses entirely on what is being said to Asso and not on her reaction to it.

This presentation runs contrary to western melodramatic and soap opera form in which the emphasis on conjoined personal space would necessitate a shot-reverse shot structure of the characters' reactions before focusing specifically on the wealthy man's and the butcher's dialogues in their respective scenes. This type of structure is necessary in order to suture the viewer into the viewpoints of these two characters. However, as it is not the goal of Miseria to encourage viewer identification with the characters themselves, transitional shots are excluded from the scenes and thus characters' personal spaces are isolated. In this way, the viewer is forced to consider the issues conveyed through the close-ups: the injustice of a societal system in which some members can afford to buy top quality produce while others can't even afford meat for their families.

In western melodrama, and more specifically the "woman's picture," the combination of shot-reverse shot cuts between actor's locked gazes must include exact eyeline matches in order to intensify emotions between the characters. But this convention is not integrated into the politics of the shots in Miseria. For example, intercut into the scene in which Assoko, her brother, and mother sit down to their evening meal is a series of extreme close-ups of the brother depicting his frustration at having been cheated by the wealthy woman. Even as he exclaims to his mother in these extreme close-ups that he understands how people become assassins, his eyeline is not made for a locked eyeline match. Generally, Asso looks at her son, but his gaze is seldom locked with hers. And indeed, in the master shot he rarely holds his mother's gaze, deferring to her authority. The camera makes limited subjective or emotional value judgements about the narrative and is placed as if it were just recording the scene to allow the viewer to witness all sides of the debate. Thus, a look is being constructed at the viewer, not from character point of view, but from a one-camera set-up.

Consider the role that Miseria's shoestring budget could have played in the mise-en-scène. The sheer practical dynamics of constructing a Hollywood gaze require a three-camera set-up lasting the entire length of the scene. This would not appear to pose any drawbacks for the big budget productions Dallas and Dynasty. [15] However, in Miseria the action is choreographed for a one-camera set-up, especially in the establishing shots where there is no evidence of any other camera position. Miseria's single-camera set-up throughout the serial indicates that cost-saving measures probably outweight artistic concerns. And, if the looks are constructed out of practical rather than emotional necessity in Miseria, is the gaze necessarily built upon culturally defined notions of sexual difference?

Central to the expectation in female-centered narratives that women are objects of a male gaze is the dependence upon consistent, recognized conventions of film grammar. Indeed, the experience of looking at Hollywood film from a politicized (eurocentric feminist) viewpoint builds up the expectation that the cinematic grammar will visually foreground women's oppression. But what happens when the conventions that produce this oppression are not included in the grammar of the shots? For example, in an early scene in the first episode Nanou introduces Assoko to her father (who just happens to be the man who bought fruit from Asso in scene two!). As the two young women leave the room, the camera zooms in on the father watching them. His eyeline moves from right to left in the frame. Then, supposedly from his point of view, Assoko's buttocks enter the frame as she moves from right to left. Nanou follows Assoko, her own buttocks obscuring those of Assoko. The shot ends with Nanou positioned approximately center frame. The next shot is a medium close-up shot of the father thinking but not looking directly at the subject/object of the last shot as no eyeline match is established. Because of this, the aim of the scene can only be peripherally sexual, for the shot gives the narrative information that he might be interested in Assoko, but the camera does not linger on her. Furthermore, as the presence of Nanou's body literally wipes that of Assoko out of the frame, she would be the object of her own father's desire, not Assoko! Clearly, the cinematic grammar and visual narrative imagery of Miseria do not present women as objects/victims of a male gaze. Narrative content is played against the cinematic grammar, not to create psychological or emotional excess at an individual level, but to privilege dogmatic concerns at a societal level. Thus, to concentrate solely on the narrow project of gender oppression would be to obfuscate the larger African reality of neocolonial oppression that Ngono Ambassa is attempting to portray.

In the moral universe of western melodrama, Assoko would have to pay or be destroyed for her "anti-social" behavior. And the fact that she finds happiness in marriage at the end of the mini-series without having made some type of self-sacrifice would be viewed as an internal contradiction in the text in western television melodrama as well as in its cinematic predecessors. Assoko's choice of action (prostitution) represents one response to a situation (poverty), not a reflection of its morality. If a desperate first choice is made whereby Assoko must prostitute herself, later a calculated choice is taken whereby both mother and daughter practice the profession. Thus, while prostitution begins in desperation, it continues in calculation as Assoko and her family strive to maintain the material wealth to which they have become accustomed. It is this consumerism and its consequences that are central to Ngono Ambassa's concerns.

That the issues in Miseria are directed not to a gendered (woman's) audience but to a wider Cameroonian audience is underscored by the fact that Assoko's whole family is a victim of poverty and consumerism in the narrative. The narrative set-up and cinematic grammar demonstrate that it is not due to lack of hard work that the family is poor. And, as both Assoko and her brother end up using their bodies for labor it becomes quite clear that economic privilege is not gender specific in the society that Miseria portrays. Ultimately, it is because of circumstances, and not innate psychological characteristics or immorality, that prostitution becomes the only means of escape from economic misery.

These issues are directed to all Cameroonians, and to read their containment to the realm of the individual and the emotional is to misconstrue Ngono Ambassa's project. Not only is she ensuring that unique televisual content and form are generated to probe African realities, but also she is charting a complete alternative to westernized melodramatic structure by developing a specific African sense of the use of melodramatic form in Miseria.

1. Pam Cook, "Melodrama and the Women's Picture," in Gainsborough Melodrama, eds. Sue Aspinall and Robert Murphy (London: BFI, 1983), p. 14.

2. Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," in Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: BFI, 1987), pp. 43-69.

3. Elsaesser, p. 44.

4. Elsaesser, p. 45.

5. See Pam Cook, "Melodrama and the Women's Picture"; Annette Kuhn, "Women's Genres: Melodrama, Soap Opera, and Theory," Screen, Vol. 25, no. 1, 1984, pp. 18-28; Laura Mulvey, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema'," Framework, nos. 15/16/17, 1981, pp. 12-15.

6. Annette Kuhn, p. 18.

7. Chuck Kleinhans, "Notes on Melodrama and the Family Under Capitalism," Film Reader, no. 3, 1978, pp. 40-48.

8. This mini-series was written and directed by Blandine Ngono Ambassa in 1990 for CRTV (Cameroon's national television station).

9. Robert C. Allen, "A Reader-Oriented Poetics of the Soap Opera," in Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama, ed. Marcia Landy (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p. 503.

10. Jane Feuer, "Melodrama, Serial Form, and Television Today," in The Media Reader, eds. Manuel Alvarado and John O. Thompson (London: BFI, 1990), p. 259.

11. Allen, p. 506.

12. Kuhn, p. 18.

13. Feuer, p. 258.

14. Feuer, p. 259.

15. According to one source, "Dynasty costs approximately one million dollars an hour because of the show's cavernous and opulent sets, not to mention the dazzling fashions worn by cast members." Soap Opera Digest, no. 7, (December 7, 1982), p. 141.

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