While dignitaries from fifty-three African countries gathered in Durban, South Africa, for the in Inaugural Summit of the African Union (AU), the African Union Film Festival (AUFF) drew together filmmakers, cultural policy experts and audiences for six days of free screenings and panels.
The thirty-plus films programmed reflected African cinema’s past, present, and future, including classics, documentaries, shorts, and new feature films. Taking a cue from the new era launched by the creation of the AU, panels focused on the future of media in Africa. The festival was part of a wide range of arts programs presented throughout South Africa in conjunction with the AU summit held June 28 to July 10, 2002.
The AUFF program reflects a united Africa that transcends the psychological, geographical, and cultural barriers that divided the continent during the colonial period. With those barriers removed, the 700 million people living the continent become a huge potential market for African culture and cinema. “If only 10 percent of the people in Africa go see African films, that would be enough,” filmmaker Cheik Sissoko of Mali notes.
At the AUFF kick-off reception, African Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Brigitte Mabandla indicated that the government is taking a strong position in support of the development of the film sector. “Film, as part of the cultural program surrounding the Summit of the African Union, is vital,” she says.
Telling African stories, changing the stories that are told, and creating visual literacy based on non-colonial media products are the challenges facing filmmakers across the continent. With a population of 44 million, South Africa alone is a potentially significant market. But creating and distributing distinctly African films is difficult even in South Africa, the continent’s broadcast leader. The legacy of apartheid, geography, and concentrated media ownership slows reaching and building new audiences and markets. There are no theaters in the black townships. And Hollywood imports dominate the screens in the affluent areas. It is clear that in media, as in many other sectors of the country, there are still two South Africas; the developed white sector, and the developing black sector.
Financing is an issue for all filmmakers, but this is doubly true in Africa. Many of the films produced on the continent still receive most of their funding from Europe. The battle for resources, production, distribution, and exhibition has been a frustrating one for filmmakers, who have been fighting for foothold in African distribution since 1969 with the creation of the Federation of Pan-African Filmmakers.
Many filmmakers argue there can be no development for Africa without culture, and that moving-image media is central to the rise of an African identity. Sissoko challenged and cautioned filmmakers to guard and preserve the African perspective and sensitivity while capturing the voice and personality of Africa during the panel “The Importance of Film in Shaping and Expressing Cultural Identity.” At the same time, Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima, a vocal warrior against Hollywood stereotypes of Black people’s history, advocated for an “African Cinema on it’s own terms.”
During all the panels and the screenings, the African festival audience was vocal, engaged, and outspoken. One young student chastised the government ministers at a press conference for not attending the screenings. People complained about content of the television programs and the lack of African programming.
Both filmgoers and filmmakers were connected with AUFF’s theme, films that had “broken the mold.” Whether the films were classics of African and South African cinema, contemporary features, documentaries, or shorts, all the stories provided the audience with a new way of seeing themselves and their continent.
Screenings of South African apartheid-era classic features, like Cry, The Beloved Country and Place of Weeping were overflowing. Showings of newer features from outside of South Africa like Sissoko’s Guimba, a political film about a mythical warrior-sorcerer, and Med Hondo’s stunning feature Sarraounia, about a legendary warrior queen who defeated the French were also packed. South African-born filmmaker Jacqueline Fox also premiered her bold UN documentary Together We Can, about HIV/AIDS South Africa, to great acclaim at AUFF.
The festival is a collaboration between the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), the Film Resource Unit (FRU), and the Centre for Creative Arts (CCAC). All three entities are major forces behind the innovative strategies that are redefining and building the film industry in South Africa. Each is headed by a dynamic, media savvy South African passionately committed to African cinema and to creating an economically viable, culturally progressive film industry in South Africa.
In linking their cultural initiatives to the new political structure of the AU, particularly the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), they must first debunk the notion that African cinema is not economically viable. They must prove that cinema is a key to the continent’s economic revival, which is the broadest goal of NEPAD, AU lead plan of action to set the continent on a path of accelerated growth and sustainable development, eradicating widespread poverty, and repositioning Africa in the global community.
One encouraging sign that the film sector has the ear and support of the South African government is the existence of NFVF. Created by an act of the South African Parliament in 1999, NFVF is charged with revitalizing the country’s film industry. Since its inception, NFVF’s budget has risen from 10 million rand (the equivalent of 10 million dollars U.S.) to 18 million rand.
The Foundation has encouraged and supported African filmmakers and developed collaborative relationships with South Africa’s leading broadcasters, SABC and M-Net. NFVF finances five features a year and is planning to expand production. It also supports script development, documentary production, workshops, technical training, audience development, and distribution within South Africa. Outside of South Africa, NFVF is establishing a presence in international venues, such as Cannes and MIPCOM.
There are still questions among filmmakers about how supportive the political bodies really are of the emerging cultural organizations. During the panel “Developing the Commercial Viability of African Film: the Role of NEPAD,” participants questioned the commitment of the NEPAD initiative to broader cultural concerns and not just fiscal development. Although throughout the AU summit a lot of noise was generated about culture as the foundation of Africa, in the NEPAD document, “African Century/New Century,” the section on culture; is a skimpy and vague paragraph. Concerns that the speeches supporting cultural initiatives were nothing more than rhetoric were further underscored by the fact that few of the delegates from the Summit attended the panels or the screenings. Although many were seen shopping.
There is clearly a need for serious lobbying of African policy members, to educate them not to view cinema as benign entertainment, but as an economic trigger. Increased demand for African cinema products means a need for increased supply, and at the present time, there is a serious shortage. Most of the development initiatives have just gotten off the ground. It is unrealistic to anticipate prolific feature film production in the foreseeable future. To help fill the gap, organizations are fostering short film production, which is excellent training for young filmmakers and is proving to be popular and in high demand internationally, as demonstrated by the success of series like Mama Africa.
The festival set the parameters for sustainable development of the South African film industry. The country has the potential, and infrastructure, to set the continent’s pace for developing innovative distribution, production, and exhibition strategies for African cultural products from an African perspective. Jacques Behanzin, secretary general of the Federation of Pan-African Filmmakers, said, “South Africa is the new camel to carry African cinema.”