Untold Africa on Film

African moviemakers and actors pose in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, during a ceremony in February to honor African moviemakers

African moviemakers and actors pose in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, during a ceremony in February to honor African moviemakers at the 19th biennial Pan African Film and Television Festival. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP-Getty Images)

“Can a colored man be a Zulu Chief? Before Apartheid and from the time of Shaka, the Fynns ruled with a steady hand over a community in KwaZulu Natal. Garbed in the skins of the chieftaincy, their direct descendent, Morris, is determined to right the wrongs of the Group Areas Act and restore his family’s name, land and power. Many are sympathetic to Morris’ cause, but the fight is a complex one. He must fulfill three conditions of a government commission and overcome the reticence of his family, the indifference of the community and arrogance of the current chief, who believes Morris is a joke. With touching tenacity, Morris battles the system and the people’s perception, and challenges us to wonder whether the black and white attitude of apartheid colors our perceptions today …”

This brilliant film, “Morris Fynn Goes Native,” directed by Ngaire Blankenberg, a granddaughter of Morris Fynn, was screened on the opening night of the 7th Encounters South African International Festival in Cape Town. The documentary is just one among 56 others being shown until July 31 in Cape Town, South Africa, and from August 14 in Johannesburg. The festival celebrates creative work of film directors who, sometimes through constraints, strive to illuminate critical issues that dog our lives.

So what are African short films about? The films in the Encounters festival tell real and personal stories about us, in a completely different light from the stories narrated by foreigners through often-ineffective tales about our history in “African movies.”

And we, as Africans, are most suited to tell these stories because storytelling is an ancient powerful African tradition that will probably never fade. Our ancestors sat around fires in the old days telling tales to a mesmerized audience. But today’s storytellers have the awesome medium of television to use as a mouthpiece. There are many beautiful story ideas. From the forgotten traditions to modern problems; stories of a fascinating people and small animals living in breathtaking jungles.

The directors whose titles have been selected for screening try in their best way possible to tell these stories in a creative way.

“Documentaries are not only cheaper to make, they also encourage nation building by their ability to narrate stories that impact in a personal way on people’s lives,” says Encounters codirector, Nodi Murphy. “Film makers in Africa are now tapping on this genre that provides greater scope for reflection and experiences, without the constraints of big budget film making.”

The Encounters mission is to provide exposure and develop audiences. “Documentaries can be exciting. The festival has cultivated a culture of documentary enthusiasts, people whose long held notion that documentaries are purely infomercials has gradually changed,” says Murphy.

“Governments and the private sector in Africa should support the film industry, and especially the short format genre, because it is a powerful tool for development,” says Murphy. Unemployment, especially among the youth, and poverty are major problems in Africa. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Obviously films could serve as one antidote to the undesirable activities which are such an easy pitfall for people with spare time on their hands.”

Encounters chose to celebrate women in this year’s festival by selecting for screening nine films directed and produced by women. “Sisters in Law” by directors Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi is a poignant film that is every woman’s story. It’s about two women, one a state prosecutor and the other a district magistrate who make an empowering difference in the lives of the people of Kumba, Cameroon. Their forthright approach may make you laugh, but the tragedy of the cases, and the severity of the sentences they hand down, provides anything but light entertainment.

For a long time women in the film industry have been shut out of technical aspects of production. “But roles are changing now. We have proved to be just as good as our male counterparts in fields like scriptwriting, directing, producing and camera,” says South African director Omelga Mthiyane. “It’s not a bed of roses for women with demanding careers. We have to juggle between raising families and excelling in our professions.”

Most directors feel there is a need to establish more film festivals across Africa in order to create a forum to showcase their work, and sensitize audiences on the need to appreciate documentaries as a form of educative entertainment. Independent filmmakers face serious problems in making films and selling them to broadcasters or anyone else.

“Festivals are a great way to get feed back from audiences … and if your viewers give a good response to your product then the mainstream cinemas and broadcasters will follow on. The challenge now is to have more festivals in order to reach a broader audience,” says Mthiyane. “When film makers try to sell their work overseas, the first thing they ask is how well your film did in your country. Our films need to gain more support right here in the African Diaspora before we start thinking of selling them elsewhere.”

The focus now should be to lobby all African governments and the private sector to give more support to the film industry, and especially upcoming filmmakers.

The South African government has realized that film and television are an important part of documenting the country’s past and future. The national Film and Video Foundation supports emerging filmmakers while institutions like the Film Resource Unit market South African films internationally. Broadcasters like the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, are also investing in filmmakers.

But that cannot be said of other nations in Africa. Media owners in Kenya were up in arms when the government attempted to introduce broadcast quotas that would have seen broadcasters air up to 60 percent locally made programs. Currently the broadcast content is more than 80 percent foreign. That directive if implemented would have stimulated low budget local productions, and created employment in this sector. Reliance on imported material is stifling the potential of local professionals in a big way. But despite the shortfalls Kenyan film and video directors are still making productions and screening them in festivals like the African Cine Week in Nairobi or the Pan Africa Film and Television Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

As long as broadcasters maintain this attitude towards local productions, heroes for African children will continue to be men with green or blue eyes, and women with blonde hair. African children will never know of great African people like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Miriam Makeba, Patrice Lumumba or Paul Tergat.

Some broadcasters, while worming their way out of airing local content argue it is expensive to produce programs, or that existing work done by some local producers is substandard. And rightly so.

The acquisition of the camcorder in Nigeria allowed producers to saturate the market with popular cheap productions, in the process overshadowing the efforts of serious directors. Though this “industry” creates jobs, the stories that are filmed in a hurry lack basic television production techniques and narrative structure. These producers do not care about the lack of imagination in their stories on witchcraft, gangs, and religious sects. To some viewers, the stories provide laughter and pleasure, that’s why “Nollywood” churns out about 360 of them annually and even manages to even sell some abroad.

So why wouldn’t a serious director cooperate with a successful video producer? Some African directors despise documentaries, which they think will not land them on a red carpet. To others, anything not shot on 35mm film is not considered cinema. This bigoted attitude must stop. Africa needs documentaries to give its own view of the continent.

Film knowledge is still at its infancy in most of Africa. Film schools battle to survive and those that do are either out of reach for talented but poor students or face challenges in establishing studios with professional equipment, or even to retain qualified lecturers. And then there is that little problem of the rapidly emerging quack colleges in some countries, purporting to offer courses in filmmaking.

If Africa is to have a stimulating film industry, government’s will have to dig deeper into their pockets to invest in a meaningful film education.