Interview: Lizelle Bisschoff, director of the Africa in Motion (AiM) film festival, Edinburgh, 23 October to 02 November
Could you give us an overview of contemporary film production across the African continent?
There is film production in all the different regions in Africa. North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria) has quite productive film industries, with Egypt having the oldest film industry in Africa. Currently contemporary Egyptian films (such as the very successful The Yacoubian Building) are putting Egyptian cinema back on the map. Francophone West Africa (countries such as Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso) has historically very prolific film industries, aided by France's support of the cultural industries in its ex-colonies. The first sub-Saharan black African to direct a film on the continent is Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Today Sembene's legacy of politically-conscious, social-realist filmmaking can still be observed in contemporary films from this region. But many other genres and styles are explored in filmmaking from this region, there are also the mythical films of Malian director Souleymane Cisse and the films set in pre-colonial Africa by directors such as the Burkinabe filmmakers Gaston Kabore and Idrissa Ouedraogo.
Francophone West Africa still produce many films currently, with a number of young directors (including female directors) emerging over the last few years. Then there are of course the prolific video-film industries of anglophone West Africa - low-budget, locally popular films being made in Nigeria (which has come to be known as Nollywood), Ghana and anglophone Cameroon. The Southern African film industries are dominated by South Africa, whose film industry has grown tremendously since the end of apartheid in 1994. The crest of the wave was Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 2006. The South African government and other cultural players support filmmaking in South Africa, as it is regarded as an important tool in self-expression and nation building. A number of black South African filmmakers are also emerging. Lots of documentaries are produced in Southern Africa, more than in any other region in Africa, which has to do with the legacy of British colonial policy in this region and donor funding for issue-based documentaries. East Africa is hugely under-represented in terms of film production when compared to other regions, but still there are directors emerging from countries such as Tanzania, Ethopia, Eritrea, Malawi, and Kenya.
What is the biggest challenge in designing a programme of African films to a Western audience that is largely uneducated about it?
Our approach with Africa in Motion has always been to be as diverse as possible. This year's festival is our most adventurous and varied programme yet. This way we ensure that there is something for everyone. The festival attracts not only discerning audiences who might like arthouse cinema and thus be attracted to the francophone West African films, but we are also attracting African diaspora communities who come to see films from their countries of origin, students, filmmakers, people who have travelled to Africa, etc. The biggest challenge is probably to stay absolutely on top of current film production in Africa, to stay aware of current trends, and to incorporate as many of these into the programme. Our festival is intended to be educational and entertaining, and in many cases audience perceptions might be challenged in terms of the kind of films people might think should come out of Africa. For example, we are screening an extensive programme of animation films this year, as well as late-night screenings of African horrors, erotica and experimental work. Many people will be surprised to learn that these kinds of films are also made in Africa.
What are the main channels of film distribution in Africa?
Europe plays a big role in film distribution, with many distributors of African films based in Europe, such as Paris for the francophone films, Lisbon for lusophone films, etc. Unfortunately many distributors in Africa itself do not support African cinema and believe that local audiences do not want to see African films. Many African countries have historically been saturated with films which could be acquired cheaply by distributors ï¿½" Bollywood, Kung fu, Westerns, etc. As film production is so costly in Africa, and production companies struggle to cover their costs through distribution (as is true all over the world bar Hollywood, Bollywood and now Nollywood), many African distributors are reluctant to screen African films which they believe could not deliver a financial return. This trend would need to be reversed for African films to ever become financially viable in the countries of origin, and this would involve a process of audience development and education. Nollywood operates differently of course, and these films often do not have any cinematic release, but are distributed only on DVD.
What are the main sources of financing for African directors?
For francophone West Africa it has historically been France, and now the European Union, which supports filmmaking primarily through their Fonds Sud Cinema funding scheme. Many European countries, such as Holland and the Scandinavian countries also financially support filmmaking in Africa through various funding schemes. African governments and local funding agencies also provide film funding, especially in countries such as Burkina Faso and South Africa, where film is regarded as an important part of national self-expression.
Do you notice any recurring themes and motifs in contemporary films?
The tradition-versus-modernity theme which has been part of African cinema since its inception, still occurs in many contemporary films. Africa is still struggling to find its own identity in an increasingly globalised world. Grappling with issues dealing with traditional Africa versus the influences of modernity is an ongoing issue, and is reflected in its cinemas. There are also films dealing with problematic contemporary issues, such as civil wars, genocides, child soldiers, corrupt neo-colonial governments, etc. Many films present a vision for change and progress, such as overcoming the patriarchal structures which continue to oppress women, overcoming poverty and corruption, and breaking away from Africa's reliance on Western support and aid. Films also explore African histories, in particular pre-colonial traditional Africa, African music, dance and arts - many films indeed celebrate the richness and diversity of African cultures.
Who are the new directors we should be watching out for?
There are many! Apolline Traore and Fanta Regina Nacro from Burkina Faso; Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania; Isabelle Boni-Claverie from Ivory Coast/France; Khalo Matabane and Vincent Moloi from South Africa; Newton Aduaka from Nigeria; Annis Lassoued from from Tunisia ...
Africa in Motion takes place between 23 October and 02 November at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. Please follow the link on the left for more details.
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