'Pango and Wally': the new faces of urban Africa

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The Independent Culture

Wally, a thriving businesswoman in her thirties, is married to Pango, a dynamic 40-something man - the stars of a new Gabonese television series that breaks with "African" cliches by portraying a chic, modern, middle-class.

"Pango and Wally", as the show is called, is aiming big, hoping to attract a continent-wide audience.

There are no rural huts, gourds, modesty aprons and other cliches of African village life "quite simply because I wanted to show another side of society that one does not often see on the screen," said film director Imunga Ivanga.

And one he thought was long overdue. "More than 50 years ago (...) a rather bourgeois African class emerged," like Wally, played by the Angolo-Gabonese Erika Nsia Malembe, and Pango, played by the Gabonese Medard Mouele, he said, referring to 1960s when many African states gained independence.

The project resulted in 30, five-minute episodes that Ivanga, also filmmaker and scenarist, hopes will start airing in February.

The Gabonese Institute of Image and Sound (IGIS), where Ivanga is director general, produced the series on a modest budget estimated at 70 million CFA francs, or less than 107,000 euros/142,000 dollars - peanuts compared to Western sitcoms.

Filming took only a month, as of mid-October, with a crew of only 40 people in the capital Libreville. It was shot in a luxurious villa in the Cite de la Democratie, a large complex for hosting important guests and staging prestigious events.

"Pango and Wally" can potentially reach some 80 percent of Gabon's estimated 1.5 million residents, many of whom enjoy a relatively high standard of living compared with neighbouring nations. Thanks to abundant resources, including oil, and small population, Gabon is often upheld as one of the more stable and prosperous African nations.

The series was filmed in French, the national language, but translations are under consideration to bring it farther afield.

In the show, African masks adorn the walls of the couple's home, books are on the shelves and the residence is equipped with the latest in household appliances.

"These are people who live a nice life," said Alain Oyoue, one of the series' directors. "It stars a modern couple. Modern - that means active and responsive."

Dialogue is swift and pointed - Pango is inclined to invoke traditional customs and ideas while his wife offers challenging repartees. In one episode, Wally asks Pango why he doesn't want her to go out with her girlfriends. "When you married me, was it to go out with those friends who are still not married?" he asks.

"And what do you fear?" she jibes. "That I'll get married again? Don't fret, polyandry isn't allowed in our country."

In another episode, Wally invites her "ex-guy" home to the great annoyance of Pango, who moans: "You make me do things that other men wouldn't accept! (...) And me, because I'm crazy, I put up with it!"

"Modern Africa has several sides. It's also interesting to show characters who can project a certain social success ... who tackle subjects with great frankness and energy," Oyoue told AFP.

Though a few, notably South African TV series broke ground in this direction, mainly "stereotypes continue," said Thierno Dia, a Senegalese cinema teacher and researcher.

"The African audience is like all audiences: charmed by artifice, violence and the exotic," so many African directors cater to this, said Dia. "Showing the worst nurtures the false idea that audiences are much better off" than what they're watching on TV.

The IGIS last year replaced Gabon's National Centre for Cinema, a name change that reflects both the decline of movie houses in much of Africa - as television and DVDs became more plentiful - and its ambition to reach television viewers across the continent.

"This five-minute format we've chosen allows us to move into the small screen, because traditionally we were more concerned with the big screen," said Ivanga.

It is a way to draw attention, to differentiate from popular series already on TV, "to take a different path, alongside the others," he said. "Even if the format is short, it's dense, dynamic and very demanding".

"We are starting with Gabon, of course. But (...) the continent interests us," Ivanga said.

For Mouele, many Africans will recognise themselves in his character Pango, "who plays an active part in the building of modern Africa, while at the same time not losing his bearings.

"He knows where he comes from," said the actor.

"Our wish, everybody's wish, is that this series (...) can touch the heart of every African who cares about African culture and the identity of our continent," he added.