African filmmaker Director, Interrupted

Filmmaker Richard Djif left Cameroon after he was tortured for his political satire. His application for asylum in Germany has been denied but he is determined to keep on directing.
Richard Djif starring in his film "139... Les derniers prédateurs".


One evening, as Richard Djif was heading home to his student dorm in Yaoundé, Cameroon's administrative capital, he saw two men standing in front of his halls of residence.

Mr. Djif, a filmmaker, then noticed a Toyota parked nearby, the same one that had been following him around town for two days.

Rather than going into the building, he hailed a motorcycle taxi. The Toyota followed in pursuit. The motorbike driver got scared and dropped Mr. Djif off on a side street. Mr. Djif crossed the road but was cornered by the Toyota and another car. He was then grabbed by two men who blindfolded him and bundled him into one of the cars. Ten days of torture followed; Mr. Djif's finger was broken twice.

The kidnapping took place in 2013, ten days after the debut of his political satire “139… Les Derniers Prédateurs”, or "139...The Last Predators," a gangster film showing the corrupt power structures in a fictitious African state called Chimpanzee.

The film’s dominant theme is the lack of press freedom. The movie shows two reporters try to interview the dictator fittingly called the "immortal tiger,” a reference to the long periods that many African dictators stay in power.

In Cameroon too, president Paul Biya has been head of one of the most corrupt countries in the world since 1982. Transparency International lists Cameroon 136th out of 175 countries in terms of corruption.

“There are no alternatives in the political system in Africa,” Mr. Djif said when asked why he made the film.

The film was difficult to make and was not well received in Cameroon. Mr. Djif had financed the €4,000 movie by mortgaging a camera someone had lent him and asking family and friends for contributions.

Many of the actors who were in the film at the start dropped out before it was finished, fearful of what the film's critical approach would mean for them. Before the release date, Mr. Djif received several death threats from anonymous callers who told him not to release the film.


Mr. Djif is in limbo, unsure whether he will be allowed to stay or go.


When he showed the film in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, few people attended the screening.

“I had offered around 30 to 50 students free tickets but fewer than five showed up. I realized that there was a climate of fear,” Mr. Djif told Handelsblatt Global Edition in an interview.

Two days after the premiere, the film was scheduled to run at the French cultural institute in Yaoundé, but the institute pulled out of the second screening without further explanation. Instead, they reimbursed Mr. Djif. “That was confusing but it gave me a stronger sense that there was something strange going on,” he said.

Mr. Djif said he thought the government was behind what happened in Cameroon but has no direct proof. The Cameroonian embassy in Berlin did not want to comment on the case.

The director applied for asylum in Germany in 2013, after he was invited to speak about political cinema at the University of Bayreuth. His application for asylum was denied. “We do not recognize his status as a refugee,” the letter stated. In a 19-page document, Germany's immigration authorities outlined why Mr. Djif's story lacked credibility.

Video: Mr.Djif's film was shown in Berlin in June.

Among other things, the letter said that the alleged anonymous phone calls and threats do not constitute a “significant interference” to the life and physical freedom of a person.

Mr. Djif is quietly spoken, calm and friendly but also scarred by his experiences. He is contesting the authorities' decision.

"This response was thrown together without much thought," said Lena Stehle, who is Mr. Djif's lawyer. She has been practicing asylum law in Berlin and Brandenburg for 7 years.

Cameroon is seen as a stable country in the eyes of the international community – no war is being fought there, the press enjoys greater freedom compared to some other countries. Cameroon has more than 240 ethnic groups; the Bamilike, to which Mr. Djif belongs, is believed to be one of the better off, associated with business sense and entrepreneurship.


Mr. Djif is involved in various cultural film events in Germany.


"The German immigration authorities think that Cameroon is a safe country and that there are domestic possibilities for refugees. The trouble is that people like Mr. Djif fall through the cracks," Ms. Stehle said. She has filed a lawsuit against the Administrative Court in Potsdam, the capital of the state of Brandenburg.

The chances that Mr. Djif will be able to stay in Germany are good, she said.

There has been a similar case for another Cameroonian filmmaker, Jean Pierre Bekolo. He also made a film about an African leader, "Le Président” around the same time as Mr. Djif was abducted. Like Mr. Djif's film, his work was banned from venues like the French Cultural Institute. The parallels of their personal destinies are striking.

Cameroon is the second largest filmmaker in francophone Africa, host to “Ecrans Noir,” an annual film festival that takes place in Yaoundé.

“I would like to engage in human rights work via the arts. These issues have been fought in Europe but as an African, there are many critical things we still need to fight for,” Mr. Djif said.

Sarah Mewes is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin and has reported on Africa and refugees. To contact the author: [email protected]