Africa: the lost continent

Rebecca Hawketts 10 November 2007

The Cambridge African Film Festival began its colourful life very humbly in 2002 in some Trinity College lecture rooms. Since then it’s just got bigger and bigger and each year it has commanded more attention from enthusiasts of film, Africa and presumably both. The films at this year’s African Film Festival are themed around the issues of gender, exile, migration, arts and politics – not an easy bunch of topics – and are to be found in the form of documentaries, feature films, shorts and animation.

Joel Cabrita and Julie MacArthur, two of the festival’s co-directors, explain their intentions with this year’s festivals and its wide-ranging premise: “these are all issues and themes that can be found across the continent but are all being expressed differently.” One of their main goals with the selection of films for this year’s festival was to show original diversity, and to make “a concerted effort to show films from several different countries from across the continent.”

The primary mandate for the festival since its very beginning has been to try and explode stereotypes and myths about Africa. Joel believes that Africa is often seen only as a continent of “starvation, desperation and disease, and famine”, so they have chosen films made by African filmmakers and directors that deliberately challenge any pre-conceived notions that one might hold.

When it comes to African films I can certainly think of a few set in or about Africa – ‘Zulu’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and ‘Out Of Africa’ are the first that spring to mind. But to think of films that are African-produced with African directors and filmmakers and my mind starts to struggle a bit. Is there even a big film culture or industry in Africa?

Festival co-director, Julie, explains that there are in fact parallel industries presently on the rise: “There are more artsy films being produced, geared towards the international community – films that often only get screened at film festivals like ours. But there is also a very local video culture developing in several countries made famous by Nigeria’s Nollywood where there are thousands and thousands of films made every year and distributed locally and also across the continent.”

Hollywood films don’t necessarily do so well in the African countries, with audiences preferring alternatives such as Bollywood and martial arts films.

Like in many countries all over the world there is rising competition from the bootleg industry coming out of Asia. What makes this growth different in Africa though, is the lack of a pre-existing long-established culture of cinema-going, so the bootleg industry is denying filmmakers these opportunities before they’ve even had a chance to reach large auditoriums full of eager audiences: “People can get the films for much, much cheaper than actually going to the cinema. That alternative is actually hindering more of a theatre going culture in many of the African countries.”

There is an upside to this trend though as it ultimately creates wider access to films as production and distribution are cheap. As Julie explains: “That is what Nollywood and Riverwood are based upon; local video cultures. This enables African filmmakers to produce these things cheaply and actually distribute them for an affordable price.” This in turn has been fuelling an imminent explosion in African-produced cinema. A lot of new directors are really yearning for more training and greater access to resources. Many of the directors whose films are in the Cambridge festival for example, have actually undergone film training abroad to improve and enhance their skills.

Perhaps if these skills can then be transferred back to the African continent there will be more new and exciting cinema being produced, that can hopefully break into the international market. For now though, the best of the current African film scene can be caught right here in Cambridge for this month only.

Rebecca Hawketts

For listings of all the films in the festival this week see page 26 for the TCS Listings page.

he Cambridge African Film Festival began its colourful life very humbly in 2002 in some Trinity College lecture rooms. Since then it’s just got bigger and bigger and each year it has commanded more attention from enthusiasts of film, Africa and presumably both. The films at this year’s African Film Festival are themed around the issues of gender, exile, migration, arts and politics – not an easy bunch of topics – and are to be found in the form of documentaries, feature films, shorts and animation.

Joel Cabrita and Julie MacArthur, two of the festival’s co-directors, explain their intentions with this year’s festivals and its wide-ranging premise: “these are all issues and themes that can be found across the continent but are all being expressed differently.” One of their main goals with the selection of films for this year’s festival was to show original diversity, and to make “a concerted effort to show films from several different countries from across the continent.”

The primary mandate for the festival since its very beginning has been to try and explode stereotypes and myths about Africa. Joel believes that Africa is often seen only as a continent of “starvation, desperation and disease, and famine”, so they have chosen films made by African filmmakers and directors that deliberately challenge any pre-conceived notions that one might hold.

When it comes to African films I can certainly think of a few set in or about Africa – ‘Zulu’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and ‘Out Of Africa’ are the first that spring to mind. But to think of films that are African-produced with African directors and filmmakers and my mind starts to struggle a bit. Is there even a big film culture or industry in Africa?

Festival co-director, Julie, explains that there are in fact parallel industries presently on the rise: “There are more artsy films being produced, geared towards the international community – films that often only get screened at film festivals like ours. But there is also a very local video culture developing in several countries made famous by Nigeria’s Nollywood where there are thousands and thousands of films made every year and distributed locally and also across the continent.”

Hollywood films don’t necessarily do so well in the African countries, with audiences preferring alternatives such as Bollywood and martial arts films.

Like in many countries all over the world there is rising competition from the bootleg industry coming out of Asia. What makes this growth different in Africa though, is the lack of a pre-existing long-established culture of cinema-going, so the bootleg industry is denying filmmakers these opportunities before they’ve even had a chance to reach large auditoriums full of eager audiences: “People can get the films for much, much cheaper than actually going to the cinema. That alternative is actually hindering more of a theatre going culture in many of the African countries.”

There is an upside to this trend though as it ultimately creates wider access to films as production and distribution are cheap. As Julie explains: “That is what Nollywood and Riverwood are based upon; local video cultures. This enables African filmmakers to produce these things cheaply and actually distribute them for an affordable price.” This in turn has been fuelling an imminent explosion in African-produced cinema. A lot of new directors are really yearning for more training and greater access to resources. Many of the directors whose films are in the Cambridge festival for example, have actually undergone film training abroad to improve and enhance their skills.

Perhaps if these skills can then be transferred back to the African continent there will be more new and exciting cinema being produced, that can hopefully break into the international market. For now though, the best of the current African film scene can be caught right here in Cambridge for this month only.

Rebecca Hawketts

For listings of all the films in the festival this week see page 26 for the TCS Listings page.