African business, politics and lifestyle
Is African film industry losing its light?
Something isn’t sitting quite right at this year’s fantastic, dust-filled pan-African FESPACO film festival.
For a start, it’s less “pan-African” than it might be: of 19 feature films competing for the shiny statue of Princess Yennenga riding her golden stallion — Africa’s very own Oscar — only one is from east Africa and none from Nigeria, whose video industry is third only to Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. By far the majority are from French-speaking countries.
Not only that, but the prized 35mm category in which feature films compete is beyond the reach of many African filmmakers. Only a clutch of the films competing for the top gong were actually shot on 35mm film, and many projectors have long since lost the ability to show them.
Most films are instead shot on digital, meaning filmmakers must pay in the region of 50,000 euros to transfer their digital prints onto film in order to compete. Not only is digital cheaper, easier and quicker, but it can also means film can be edited in their home countries, and easily brought to local audiences with digital projectors. Currently only north Africa and South Africa have studios equipped for 35mm.
It means many filmmakers can afford to work only with the aid of donors, and even then they can’t secure distribution to make sure their stories reach an African audience and make money too, especially since DVD piracy is rife and cinemas are closing down across the continent.
Burkina Faso, which hosts the festival, was once home to 55 working screens; today it has ten. Cameroon said goodbye to its final three already shaky screens in January, while Congo Brazzaville’s only working screen is hosted by the French Cultural Centre.
“Africa really has to change its way of making films,” said Selome Gerima, associate producer of Teza, a movie about the Red Terror in Ethiopia. “I don’t believe in going and begging to the donors; they will not take us anywhere. We have to unite and have some kind of African film bank, to sell scripts, make loans, find outlets, so we can be independent.”
One-time FESPACO winner Zola Maseko said even South Africa’s well-developed market doesn’t have the kind of audience that can support local cinema.
“When I make a film it has to be for an international audience. We need to make films in 35mm, because that’s what the international community of cinema does. We have to tell black stories, but they will mostly be seen by people at home through DVDs and TV.”
Is African cinema as we know it dying out? And if so, can it unite, adapt to new markets and tell its stories in new ways?