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Is this the start of the golden age of African films?

Arts and Culture

Is this the start of the golden age of African films?

The African film industry has been shaken up, bringing a new confidence and optimism. Gail Collins takes a journey through the history of African films and considers the future awaiting this flourishing industry.

“Birds know what God is like. They are nearer than hyenas to God. They are like some kind of elephant whose wings flow in the wind, and African filmmakers can be birds for reinventing the seventh art. We are perhaps poor in money but so rich by situation and hope.”

Djibril Diop Mambéty, Film Director

African cinema has grown at a speedy pace in recent years. From the colonial era when it was almost exclusively represented by Western filmmakers, or in the case of the French colonies banned completely, its evolution is now being keenly observed by the world.

Ironically, the film that is considered the first to be directed by a Black African – the 1955 Afrique Sur Seine, a short feature which explored the lives of African students living in France – was produced by three young filmmakers, two of whom originated from African countries still under French governance at the time.

The 1940s, 50s and 60s saw transcontinental Egypt enjoy a golden era of cinema, when it was the third-largest producer in a global film industry, while Somalia lays claim to the first independent film activity in the sub-Sahara, in the early 1960s, shortly after the country gained independence.

Ousmane Sembène, whose 1966 La noire de…is considered the first sub-Saharan African film to receive international attention, is known as the ‘Father of African Cinema’.

This author and son of a Senegalese fisherman, who was expelled from school for slapping a teacher, saw film as an effective instrument for mass communication in a country where illiteracy ran high.

Souleymane Cissé also belongs to the group of Africa’s most treasured and admired contributors. Born in Mali in 1940, he was responsible for shooting the first full-length Malian feature in the Bambara language.

The 1975 Den Musi (The Young Girl) was immediately banned by the government and Cissé was promptly arrested on charges of accepting French funding. Fortunately, he was released and continued to produce landmarks in film history such as his 1987 tour de force, Yeleen (Brightness), which won the Prix du Jury in Cannes.

Other classics include La Vie est Belle (1987), co-directed by Congolese director Mweze Ngangura and Belgian Benoit Lamy, a gentle, comedic musical. Who knows whether its popularity was for its story or the antics of its main star, Papa Wemba, a beloved and famous Congolese singer.

The film took longer than anticipated as the production schedule was interrupted when Papa Wemba was arrested and sent to a Belgian jail on charges of human trafficking! If you do not know the full story, it is well worth Googling it.

The oldest film industry in Africa

South Africa, the oldest film industry on the continent, has always been recognised for its quality film production crews and diverse, unique locations that have drawn in foreign filmmakers’ money. Its satellite distribution system is probably the best on the continent, giving access to more digital and streaming content.

Original films, however, are still relatively few although a new generation of innovative young filmmakers are determined to change this. Take for example, Nosipho Dumisa.

In an industry that has often said ‘no’ to a Black woman, she has not only opened that door, but was delighted when her 2018 feature film debut, Nommer 37, was chosen as the first fully South African production and feature film in over 10 years to receive a world premiere at the SXSW (South by Southwest) film festival.

The South African government, in an effort to bolster its own output, recently published a white paper on broadcasting which detailed plans to apply local quotas on streaming services. A spokesperson said: “The proposal for 30% of South African content in their catalogues is to ensure that on-demand content services contribute to the overall development of the creative industries similar to the traditional broadcasters.”

If this becomes law, only time will tell if it hinders or helps the country’s film industry. However, it has not prevented streaming giant Netflix from jointly forming a film industry recovery fund valued at almost $2m with the National Film and Video Foundation in South Africa, for the creation of six micro-budget films that will debut on the service.

The micro-budget film has already successfully launched here, pioneered by the Cape Town based director, writer and cinematographer Jenna Cato Bass, with films such as her 2019 Flatland.

New developments in East Africa

To the east, new developments may be afoot. Joshua Akwara, acting CEO for Kenya’s Film Commission, recently stated that the government has set targets to increase the output of their film sector and raise its current value of $192m annually to $912m by 2025 as part of its Vision 2030 long-term development plan.

Directors such as Wanuri Kahiu, have raised the bar. Her 2018 drama, Rafiki, was the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival – to the director’s frustration, it was originally banned in Kenya due to its homosexual content.

Vocal advocates, such as 29-year-old director Njue Kevin are urging the government and private investors to back the film industry in Kenya so that it can reach its full potential. He wrote and produced his first film in 2013 from his Kenyatta University dormitory and in 2017 went on to direct his first feature film, 18 Hours, which opened in cinemas across East Africa for six weeks following a sold-out premiere.

The following year the film won the Best Overall Movie in Africa title at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards. During an interview with Business Daily he said, “Filmmaking is a tough nut to crack, in all honesty. Film is a business like any other. Billions are made annually in other regions. Why not Kenya?” And indeed, why not?

Countries not traditionally known for their film industry are still producing promising young talents. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 28-year-old director Macherie Ekwa Bahango, self-taught though watching online videos, worked on her first feature film for three years.

The finished product, 2018’s Maki’la, a story about a group of street children in Kinshasa, won top prize at the Ecrans Noirs African Film Festival in Cameroon. Not one to shy away from hard-hitting African stories, in 2019 she directed Sema (Speak Out), written and performed by survivors of sexual violence, which premiered at the US DC Independent Film Festival and was awarded the prize for Best International Picture.

Nollywood rules

Today, Nigeria eclipses the rest of the African film industry through the prolific and aptly named ‘Nollywood’ industry. The title was coined in 2002 by New York Times journalist Norimitsu Onishi.

The second-largest movie industry in terms of productivity (India’s ‘Bollywood’ being the most prolific), it still falls considerably behind on the financials when compared with Hollywood and Bollywood.

It is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with and has undergone a huge facelift since the days when it was a video-based film industry produced in local indigenous languages, churning out movies made on miniscule budgets in just days and taking little heed of quality production.

Change came and enlightened filmmakers such as Kenneth Gyang (Confusion Na Wa, Oloture) and Kunle Afolayan (Phone Swap, Mokalic, The CEO) amongst others, began training at film academies across the world to improve their art.

This raised expectations and standards, resulting in a new level and energy, producing studio quality African stories that began to breathe new life into the industry.

Movies such as The Wedding Party (2016), directed by Kemi Adetiba, Chief Daddy (2018), directed by Niyi Akinmoyalan, and Sugar Rush (2019), directed by Kayode Kasum, were all box-office hits.

In 2020, actress-turned-director Funke Akindele and co-director JJC Skillz, songwriter, rapper and producer, won the number one spot for highest-grossing Nigerian film with their crime comedy drama Omo Ghetto: The Saga. It is no surprise then, that back in 2016, Netflix came calling. Pre-pandemic, the Nollywood film industry was employing around one million people, making it one of Nigeria’s largest employers, so its development can only be a good news story.

Netflix the game changer

In 2015, South Africa’s Showmax had a head start in the African streaming market and while it still has a wealth of local African content, the Netflix investment into Africa has seen it license and stream more than a hundred films from Africa since its emergence in the market. It has become a major game changer and has placed African content firmly in the international mainstream.

According to Digital TV Research, a London-based industry forecaster, streaming subscriptions in Africa are likely to increase from 3.9m, as reported in 2020, to 13m by 2025.

Netflix is facing a myriad of challenges – which range from mobile data costs to connectivity in fibre and broadband issues – head on, partnering locally and regionally to make its service more accessible and forging ahead with its creative plans to bring great African stories by talented African filmmakers to local and global audiences. (See profile overleaf.)

With a worldwide shift in how people watch entertainment, Netflix is collaborating with directors such as Kemi Adetiba, exclusively streaming her King of Boys 2, and Kunle Afolayan, who will be showcasing the first of a multi-title partnership, Swallow, later this year.

The African film industry has been shaken up, bringing a new confidence and optimism. Young filmmakers are learning and delivering more technical expertise into a flourishing industry. But, with a very bright future full of old talents bringing their experience, and new talents bringing their vision, the possibilities are endless.

Every country in Africa has a story to show and I believe the world is waiting to see them.

Read more about African cinema

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