Several co-production treaties have recently been signed between African and other countries. This transnationalism is also evident in the content of numerous films, revealing a continent that is engaging with other people and places across the globe, from East to West. This is exciting and promising for African film.
‘African Cinema’ began in the 1960s as a body of work mostly funded by the French-controlled Bureau of African Cinema, which financed about two-thirds of the sub-Saharan African films made up until 1980. African filmmakers complained that this meant that the French had editorial power to select what they wanted and often hired French editors to cut the films.
Some of the most interesting films made during this period, however, were not funded by the French: such as the Senegalese doyen Ousmane Sembene’s films, which were largely funded by his own production company Filmi Doomirev in co-production with other companies, and the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety’s films, which he co-produced with an independent Swiss funder, Silvia Voser.
These early examples of rebellion against the dominance of French ‘aid’ to African filmmaking are now becoming standard practice, partly enforced by the fact that the French have broadened their own net, funding not just African films, but ‘world cinema’, through their new ‘Cinemas of the South’ programme.
Even Nigerian films, which used to be funded through local channels in the ‘Nollywood’ model, are now being made via co-productions. The role of the African diaspora is key to this process. Take, for example, The Assassin’s Practice, a nail-biting thriller starring Kate Henshaw, which was made by Nigerian-born UK-based director Andrew Ukoko, and which will be screened at the Film Africa 2012 festival which runs 1-11 November across London. Ukoko works between the UK and Nigeria, drawing on resources from both contexts to realise his vision.
UK-based Nigerian filmmaker Obi Emelonye works in a similar way, and his debut The Mirror Boy was the first Nigerian film to have a mainstream theatrical release in the UK. It did very well – grossing about $65,000 from just a few screenings. These new Nigerian films have all the energy of ‘Nollywood’, but they are high-concept, with high production values, strong scripts, and brilliant performances. And their producers have a global approach – look out, for example, for J.U.D.E., the first Nollywood-Bollywood co-production, which should be coming to cinemas soon!
The internet is, of course, facilitating transnationalism more than anything, and in this area African filmmaking unfortunately lags behind. Although a few African filmmakers have started trying to crowdfund their films through the internet (for example, South African director François Verster, with his film.The Dream of Shahrazad), not enough is being done on this front. African films also barely have a presence in the 800 video-on-demand platforms globally, and are available online mostly through niche sites, such as M-Net’s African Film Library, AfricaFilms.tv, and various Nollywood sites, such as NollywoodLove. There has, however, been a recent surge in African digital television offerings on the continent and beyond, such as iROKOtv, Buni TV, the Africa Channel, and Zuku TV, and if the programming of such digital television is strong, then there will be much to watch and celebrate in the future. The films currently coming out of Africa also reveal transnational themes, showing that the world really is becoming smaller and that far-flung contexts are more interrelated than we might imagine.
Such ‘transnational’ films have inspired a strand called ‘Continental Crossings’ at Film Africa 2012, which includes films such as The Education of Auma Obama, about Barack Obama’s Kenyan half-sister, and Family Portrait in Black and White, about a Ukrainian woman who is foster mother to 16 mixed-race children in one of the most racist countries in the world. Both films will have their UK premieres at the festival.
Other films being screened, such as Cuba, An African Odyssey – about Cuba’s role in the liberation struggles of African countries – and When China Met Africa – about the rise in Chinese business ventures in Africa – suggest the multiple ways in which African countries are, and have always been, connected to the Western and non-Western world.
In contrast to those who would still like to think of Africa as a bounded, unchanging continent, recent African films and the rise of transnational African filmmaking give a very different picture – one of a complex, dynamic, globally-connected continent on the move.
Film Africa 2012 takes place 1-11 November at venues across London, and is the UK’s largest festival of African cinema. For more information visit: www.filmafrica.org.uk