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Hans-Christian Mahnke: African Cinema, what it is, what challenges it encounters and possible ways forward

African cinema, Namibia based film activist Hans-Christian Mahnke writes, is an expression of a cultural identity, African cinema is the search for an own specific style and a way to overcome alien influences. In addition, African cinema plays a social and economic role, it has an impact for the domestic sphere of society (in terms of education, culture and economic development/investment). And, African cinema possesses a high artistic film-specific originality, which can bring a fresh jive into world cinema.

“Modern societies have become information dependent and information driven. One of the challenges we face in this context is to avoid being overwhelmed by the powerful cultural imperialism that seeks to penetrate our societies through films, television, the Internet and other mass media. As part of our response to this challenge, we have to cultivate our value systems through the production and sharing of literature, films, the products of creative art ... that portray us correctly and differently from the dominant cultures conveyed by today’s mass media.” President Thabo Mbeki on “The African Renaissance: Africans defining themselves”, speech given at the University of Havana, Cuba, 27 March 2001

African Cinema - Seeing Africa and the World through African Eyes
African cinema is an expression of a cultural identity, African cinema is the search for an own specific style and a way to overcome alien influences. In addition, African cinema plays a social and economic role, it has an impact for the domestic sphere of society (in terms of education, culture and economic development/investment). And, African cinema possesses a high artistic film-specific originality, which can bring a fresh jive into world cinema.

The most important concern to African filmmakers is to examine their reality with their own eyes and to describe it authentically. Showing Africans holy, flawed, sane, crazy, confused, loving, daring, worried, competent, a mess … – just as they are.

And in spite of often poor financial and structural problems of most African countries in the postcolonial era, a socially critical – but nevertheless aesthetic and charming – film genre with highly realistic standards has developed. One just has to go to various international and of course specifically African film festivals like in Ouagadougou, Durban, Cape Town, Edinburgh, Cannes, Toronto and Berlin, to see for oneself. But this is more or less, where the buck stops.

Although we live in a global village and in an e-information driven period, a world wide web of information and downloads just a click away, dominated by social mass media enabling social uprisings and the toppling of governments, one still finds oneself struggling to get access to African films, be it at video shops, cinemas, and online sales agencies like Amazon etc. And only the future will tell, if the highly but prematurely praised Video-On-Demand platforms, which without doubts bear potential, can bring the long anticipated “breakthrough” for African cinema.

African Cinema – The struggle continues
For African cinema, the developments in the last ten to twenty years brought a mix of promises, anticipations, successes, and continued hurdles and disappointments with the same set of issues and challenges that have always confronted filmmakers throughout the continent. For decades African filmmakers have struggled to present viewers their own perspectives, be it due to lack of funding, be it due to lack of distribution possibilities, and or be it due to the lack of audiences in the absence of cinemas on the continent.

Due to a continous overflow of cheap products originating from the international markets and an effect, which can be described as a cultural alienation, the inherent development of cinema and television in Africa gains increasingly more socio-cultural importance. This development is not a luxury, like it would seem in several African states due to their dramatic socio-economic situation. It is an urgent necessity, even an imperative. Only by promoting Africa’s own capacity in film and television productions, one can combat the growing cultural estrangement and social disorientation of greater parts of the population.

Beyond the limited perspectives of European and American mass media productions, which reduce Africa to its misery or something exotic, these African films present a different insight into the diversity of the continent and its current social and political conflicts.

Films by Sembène  and Co., which are rightly considered to be an essential component of current world cinema, have until now only played a marginal role in the global media landscape. Although recently African films have consistently found their way to cinema screens and won some international awards, this has only occurred on a sporadic and unsystematic basis.

Of course, we saw some exceptions to this general trend, be it “U-Carmen”, “Tsotsi”, “Skin”, “Life, Above All”, or “Viva Riva!”, but their achievements remain exceptions. And yes, there are countries, like South Africa or Nigeria, where the challenges seem to be tackled successfully - although in different ways, different settings and with different results – the overall situation on the continent remains pretty much the same as in the 1970ies and 1980ies.

Basing on the ideas and motivation of filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène, Zola Maseko, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda and Jihan El-Tahri, and judging from the intentions outlined in declarations like the Tshwane Declaration (2006), the AU Dakar Declaration and the AU Dakar Plan of Action on the Promotion of ACP cultures and cultural industries (2003), African cinema is not yet there, where it should and could be.

African films can very seldom attain more than an exotically interesting status and are only accessible for a limited public. Despite the fact that they win prizes at festivals all over the world, these films are rarely programmed for regular screenings, be it on TV or in local cinemas. And although film festivals all over the world have positively responded to the success of African cinema by exhibiting African films, these films are not entirely accessible by Africans in African countries. Despite the existence of African film festivals and the recent phenomenon of Video-On-Demand platforms, the marginalization of the African spectators continues. There are no proper distribution channels on the African continent in place. The few cinemas which exist on the continent, hardly show African films. The videoshops mostly rent out non-African films and the African consumers don’t really seem to bother. They still frequent these videoshops and bring the revenue for the shop owner, although no African films are available.
And local initiatives, who do want to change the situation, are faced by the lack of financial resources, similar to the situation of filmmakers.

Screening initiatives hardly can afford even the lowest screening fees, since distributors sit in Paris, Brussels or in comfortable offices at MNet, who don’t understand or don’t want to understand the context of these initiatives. Organizing African film screenings in a major European or American city might work, since one might find a big enough African Diaspora and intellectual, interested, non-Africans who can afford the ticket price. But the returns made through ticket sales in Africa can hardly justify the efforts by these initiatives. Economically these initiatives definitely are not viable and they seem to be just a small drop in the ocean to overcome the monetary challenges of the African film industries.

Just as filmmakers from the continent, screening initiatives are depended on outside funding, making them dance to the tone of foreign donors, with all strings attached. We can continue to blame African governments and their lack of political will. We can continue to blame Hollywoods dominance for all the shortcomings in the African film industries. And we can continue to blame Western donors and producers for their mere interest in their Western markets and festivals.

But unfortunately African filmmakers and their producers too seem to put more emphasis on American and European markets and festivals than supporting local screening initiatives, local film festivals and prioritizing exhibitions on the continent over screenings and distribution deals in far away markets. The reason might be economically motivated, but African audiences sometimes don’t seem to be the primary concern.

The way out of the dilemma
VOD platform theoretically might be the future and the solutions to all this, but for its success in reality, there is need for a parallel development in internet accessibility and affordability for urban and rural Africa alike.

And African filmmakers must strengthen and re-vitalise the Panafrican Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and its national film bodies, in order to push for their governments, their audiences, their cinemas, their video shops, their dvd sales to buy, sell, watch, and of course enjoy African film products.

Much more promising at the moment seem to be crowd funding initiatives, which have been on the rise since the past ten years. Crowd funding might hold the rescueing lifeline for the African film industries. It secures funding, production, and distribution. Crowd funding is getting plenty of small contributions from individuals. These contributions together can make a good percentage of the total budget of the film. And in addition, since a lot of people are involved in financing the film, they are also interested in the product, which they want to see and promote amongst their friends, families, and other contacts. Hence they play a significant role in marketing and distributing the film. This of course only can work, since social media and internet network are bringing people closer together.
And if a filmmaker has created enough hype about his film, and got enough small donations to start producing, he can show to investors with big money that there is a keen interest in the film and it holds the potential of  bringing some revenue for the investor in the end.

Local, national and regional bodies should create movie collections and equip videoshops and libraries with local, national, regional, and continental content being relevant to their respective clientel and their film industries. African consumers need physical spaces and places where to get access to local, national, regional and continental film material. Be it in the form of movie collections to be rented out at videoshops and libraries, be it in the form of broadcasting on local, national, regional, or continental TV sets (but not only on Pay-TV channels), and be it in form of local, national, regional, and continental film festivals.

And we need a regional and a stronger pan-African integration. It cant be, that a film from Namibia stops at Namibian boarders and doesnt cross into the film markets of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, South Africa, Botswana etc.

It cant be, that a Zimbabwean film only is shown and distributed within the Zimbabwean boarders, then one looks at South Africa, once that territory is covered one looks overseas. The regional integration of the national film industries is a must and can broaden the customer base for local filmmakers. Thinking merely in national territories is outdated and keeps the African film industries small.

African people are too often customers of Western film products. They get constantly bombarded with Western and recently also with Nollywood film products. But they too have to make a change. They are the ones who buy DSTV pay TV, they are the ones who dont demand African film products at their local video shop, cinema and national TV station. If this is overcome, if the African audience a.k.a consumer awakes, there is no stopping for African cinema.

There are more than one billion Africans, hence more than one billion customers. A force to be reckoned with...

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