The rise and rise of African films

Alexa Dalby

African film-making has come a long way since it was banned in French colonies prior to independence. Now, low budget Nigerian films are popular internationally, and South Africa has emerged as the continent’s Hollywood.

African filmmakers today have more access to funding than ever before, while a host of initiatives and international links are spurring a filmmaking revolution. New technologies and Africa’s economic growth have caused a paradigm shift in business models and global mindset.

Back in colonial times, Africa was a mere exotic backdrop for Western filmmakers – in French colonies, Africans were forbidden by law to make films. In 1944 a short film was made in Paris, and North Africa was active in the 1950s, but only at the end of colonial rule in the 1960s did filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa, by Africans, belatedly call: “Action!”

Francophone Africa’s filmmakers benefited from funding from the French Ministry of Cooperation. Up to the 1980s, it financed two thirds of sub-Saharan films, but British and Belgian ex-colonies had no such cultural encouragement. Though would-be filmmakers had to study film in Moscow or Paris, great Francophone African directors emerged, although women are underrepresented in the early days.

African filmmaking debuted in 1963, with the first film of the father of African cinema, distinguished Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembene. African filmmakers of the independence era saw filmmaking as an important political tool for reclaiming the image of Africa for Africans. With the creation of the Pan-African Film Festival Fespaco in 1969, held in Burkina Faso, African film had its own forum. The Federation of African Filmmakers (Fepaci) was formed to promote production, distribution and exhibition. Filmmaking then was primarily a Francophone sub-Saharan occupation.

New generation of directors

A landmark came in 1973, when the first African film was seen at the Cannes Film Festival (Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambety) and in 1987 when the first film by a black African (Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen) was selected for Cannes’ official competition. The challenge was to achieve recognition. African films had no hero and often no professional actors – they examined the cultural roots of societies under change, the conflict between tradition and modernity, rural and new urban lifestyles.

New, younger directors such as Jean Pierre Bekolo, Jean-Marie Teno, Pierre Yameogo and Abderrahmane Sissako emerged in the 1990s and won awards at international film festivals.

African audiences were hungry to see images of themselves on screen, but there was almost no infrastructure – and in some countries, no cinemas – to achieve this and, outside Burkina Faso, no national policies. Having directors but few producers, the industry was like a head without a body. With no labs in Africa, film had to be sent to France to be developed, meaning directors could not see their daily rushes. It was easier to see African films in Europe than in Africa.

In the 1990s, as French government funding to Africa waned and the fortunes of post-Apartheid South Africa waxed, Francophone African films lost their dominance and the emphasis shifted towards English-speaking productions. In South Africa, Afrikaners, shot the first feature as long ago as 1910. And since 1994, South Africa has become a location for foreign filmmakers – it has an established filmmaking infrastructure, a Hollywood-style film studio in Cape Town and an annual turnover of US$300 million.

There are government-funded bodies, regional film commissions and coproduction agreements with a number of countries. Broadcasters have local-content quotas and more than seven daily dramas or soap operas are produced. Gavin Hood’s gang drama Tsotsi (2005) – pictured opposite – won an Oscar and science fiction District 9 (2009), directed by Neill Blomkamp, was an international success.

From film to digital

The slow growth of African film is now in fast forward thanks to new technology. With digital media, filmmakers are no longer reliant on expensive 35 mm film. Production costs are becoming affordable, enabling a flow of content with transnational themes that could reach out to international audiences.

In Nigeria, there has been an explosion of low-budget, often low-quality, video filmmaking, dubbed Nollywood. Its commercial approach has made it the most prolific film industry after Bollywood, churning out over 2,000 films a year. What was just local investment or sponsorship is now international, with funds coming from the UK or US. The industry has an estimated turnover of $250 million.

Ghana, Kenya and South Africa have joined in and the African diaspora have begun to play a more important role.

Festivals, film schools and funding

For years Fespaco – now, significantly, titled the Pan-African Film and TV Festival – was the only African film festival. In February it screened 170 films from all over the continent. These days African film festivals are popular all over Africa and beyond. US actor Danny Glover, inspired by his visit to Fespaco, initiated his own Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, which celebrated its 21st anniversary this year screening 154 films. In Africa, the annual African Movie Academy Awards, which rotates between host nations, rival the US’s Oscars, with entrants in 25 categories.

Some film festivals have tie-ins with distribution in their own country. The European Network of Film Festivals has set up the African Vision Exchange to do just that, though, importantly, commercial international distributors are still lacking. Without cinema distribution, directors are dependent on secondary income from pay TV and DVDs.

With new technology, distribution of film and television productions is starting to converge. Discop is an annual international market for African television productions. A huge library of African films past and present is available online through South African subscription TV channel M-Net’s African Film Library, with other smaller collections springing up. London is developing its own film archive – the Pan-African Film Library.

International links are boosting training. In East Africa, the International Emerging Film Talent Association partners with Ethiopian Film Initiative to train new directors. In Rwanda, filmmaker Eric Kabera founded the Rwanda film school and Rwanda Film Festival (Hillywood), which shows films on inflatable screens around the country, while Lee Isaac Chung’s Almond Tree Films links Rwanda with Tribeca in the US and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, the French TV network Canal France International’s Haraka! will award $12,293 to 12 African filmmakers to produce short films, which it will distribute in Africa and Europe.

Crossing over and globalisation

Directors such as Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan (The Figurine) are making their own commercial international coproduction links. The irreverent Viva Riva! by Djo Munga of DR Congo, financed through his own Kinshasa production company and named Best African Movie at the MTV awards, has caught the international imagination – it was bought for distribution in 18 countries straight after its 2011 premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Getting international releasing outside the continent right, as well as revitalising the domestic market, are elements that are crucial to commercialising African film. Nigeria’s Cinemart is seeking to roll-out a chain of cinemas across Africa. The first Nigerian film to have a UK release, Mirror Boy, grossed £40,000 – overseas income would make a huge difference to the funding of future films.

Africa is a large continent and filmmaking there is as varied as it is in any continent. But, as yet, there is not enough Hollywood-standard material emerging. However, young filmmakers are emerging in Africa with a global vision that reflects the realities of contemporary life – rapid urbanisation, internet-enabled mobile phones and satellite TV in middle-class African homes. They are closer to their peers around the world and are asking the same questions about crowdfunding, platforms and technologies.


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