African cinema: Which way to go?

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I spent some time in South Africa, first as an invited guest lecturer at the University of Limpopo, Teaching Directing and Filmmaking to 3rd and 4th years as well as supervising their film projects. I was also a guest speaker at their inaugural International Film, Radio and Television conference.

Many of the questions I got from students in class and at the conference revealed the continental impression Nollywood has created. Questions on why driving scenes carry on for so long. Why is there so much witchcraft in films, the portrayal of women, unexplained and ostentatious lifestyles? Questions I really couldn’t answer.

The rest of the time was spent as part of Talents Durban , a mentorship initiative from the Durban International Film Festival(DIFF) as one of 19 from across all of Africa; Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Algeria, Gabon and Botswana; Animators from Ghana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

All there to be mentored by industry experts, who help further develop projects, pitch and possibly attain finance or distribution deal.

Conversations with these filmmakers revealed a few things. There are numerous similarities across the continent in terms of challenges filmmakers face.

In Namibia there have only been 4 feature films made in the last 20 years. In South Africa, funding and support are available but once the film is finished, getting it and keeping it on screens is quite a challenge, revealing, the grass is not always greener on the other side.

South Africa has a fantastic service industry. Filmmakers from across the globe come to take advantage of tax incentives, great facilities etc. But soapies, as they are called, have more relevance than films and get more support as Hollywood films dominate cinema screens. The same is similar all across Africa.

In terms of filmmakers getting their films on Cinema screens, Nollywood seems to be doing a lot better than most other African countries. Who still have financing and distribution issues and just no real market or industry to speak of.

While Nollywood supersedes the rest of Africa in terms of volume and theatrical exhibition, there is still a matter of global appeal and reach. While Nollywood films are seen by Africans and Afro Caribbean community in diaspora, but still not finding much of an audience outside that demographic. If Nigerians are watching content from Asia and Latin America and fall in love with their stories and characters, why shouldn’t our have the same effect on them?

Films from other African countries get Oscar nominations, make a splash at top film festival in competition and sometimes get foreign distribution. Spoiler Alert! There was no Nigerian film at DIFF but Kenyan films Rafiki(2018) and Super Modo(2018) were, with the latter In Competition. To put that in perspective, only 6 theatrical features were made in all of Kenya in the last 12 months, so having two films at DIFF is quite impressive.

All the filmmakers aspire to make globally marketable films, but with the many difficulties across local industries, it’s a huge challenge. There is little infrastructure; legally, financially and commercially to sustain any of these industries in the way Hollywood has managed to and be a billion dollar industry.

Another African issue cited was mentorship (outside of programmes like Talents), or rather, the lack of it.

Young African filmmakers can’t seem to get support from those who preceded them. Some see it as a zero sum game where success of the young takes away from them and go out of their way to obstruct the progression of the “upstarts” who haven’t kissed the ring. The only resort is to seek mentors from elsewhere; the internet, studying foreign filmmakers or going to film school abroad.

Mentorship has been integral in passing cinema from one generation to the next, and that knowledge gap is like the Bermuda circle of African Cinema development. In addition to a non-archival culture, it’s hard to learn from older African films you’ve seen and cant access

In the 1960s, American filmmaker Roger Corman used his position (and independence from studios) to give opportunities to filmmakers in their twenties. Many would go on to shape and revolutionize American Cinema. Alumni of the “School of Corman” include Francis F Copolla, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron and several others. He commissioned them to make films for his company and gave them creative control (within parameters) . They all acknowledge that opportunity as vital for their path and his mentorship, immeasurable.

There’s a long journey ahead for Cinema in Africa; finance, distribution, infrastructure, training and a sustainable business model not reliant on grants. If we are to make it a powerful commercial entity to grow and reshape the narrative of the continent, we need to do things in a radically different manner and find solutions to these many challenges.

But with the zeal, innovation and creativity of many rising filmmakers from across the continent, there is light at the end of the tunnel.