Industry Report: Produce - Coproduce...
Producing in Africa
by Mazzino Montinari
- Round-table about African cinema at the Perugia baTik Film Festival: economic and social problems, the power of a European aesthetic and the freedom of digital.
“The financial dependence on Europe”
As well as a comprehensive retrospective of films, this year’s bAtìk film festival of Perugia organised a round-table discussion about African cinema, or rather about Africa’s film industries. The plural is obligatory when trying to portray this continent that has a wealth of cultures and different languages. The participants at the round table included Enzo Forini, Mohamed Challouf and Roberto Silvestri – three individuals who created one of Europe’s first-ever festivals for African cinema some twenty years ago here in Perugia. Also taking part were film critic, Giuseppe Gariazzo (the author of two books about African cinema and poetry published by LINDAU) and directors, Ferid Boughedir, Balufu Bakuapa Kanyinda. Mahamoud Ben Mahamoud, Abdheramane Sissako and Aryan Kaganof. The most delicate topic of conversation concerned the financial and social problems of the African continent: major obstacles for the development of the film industry that, as a consequence, also leads to an unavoidable dependence on European productions, especially French, Dutch and Belgian ones.
A conditionned aesthetic
The directors present acknowledged the role played by the European film industry in promoting African films at European festivals and their having allowed the African cinema to exist. If it weren’t for Europe’s contribution, African cinema would simply not have enough money to exist. The other side of the coin however is represented by the imposition, both intentional and coincidental, of an aesthetic that appeals to European tastes rather than those of Africa.
Mahamoud Ben Mahamoud’s films, for example, are produced by the brothers Dardenne. The Tunisian director said he was pleased with the work he does with the Belgian directors but, when he spoke about his latest film, Les siestes grenadines, the story of racial intolerance of Tunisians towards sub-Saharian Africans, Ben Mahamoud put the accent firmly on the critical scathing the film was subjected to both in Tunisia and, for obvious reasons, in Europe as well. Negative reviews because he surprised everyone by focusing on a state of affairs that is unlikely to meet with critical approval. “I wanted to portray the hard reality of North Africa, and wanted to escape the European platitudes according to which the only form of racism that exists is that perpetrated by the northern hemisphere towards the south. Europe always wants to portray Africa as a magical and mysterious place – but that is so distant from the harsh reality. Unfortunately, this is a painful subject for African society and an issue that Europeans would do well to reflect upon too. It occasionally happens that in order to satisfy a French or Italian audience, an African director is forced never to address the issues that really happen in Africa.”
Film critic Ferid Boughedir was keen to emphasise that “until such a time as Europeans support Africa’s film industries financially with the sole aim of presenting African films at their festivals and monothematic reviews, I can’t see us emerging from our current position as producers of niche films. Films that are also conditioned from the aesthetic point of view. France is a great nation and there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that its exceptional passion for cinema is the best demonstration of its sense of democracy. Being film lovers means respecting and appreciating the plurality of cultures. However, there is an urgent need to solve another huge problem created by our dependence on European cash. Many African countries do not have an internal film market. As a result, a paradoxical situation is created whereby African films are seen abroad but not at home. It is almost as though an African who looks at himself in the mirror, sees a European looking back at him.”
Digital is our freedom
A possible solution to the production aspects of this problem was suggested by Balufu Bakuapa Kanyinda whose Afro@digital was a sort of declaration of independence of African cinema: “if you want to make independent films you have to go in new directions. Digital is the third revolution of cinema and the new frontier of freedom of expression without being forced to compromise.”
The tone adopted by Abderrahmane Sissako was more conciliatory. Sissako directed La vie sur la Terre (Life on Earth), a medium-length feature that was commissioned by France and which was meant to represent the point of view of the population of Africa at the dawning of the third Millennium. This is a great film that was very clearly not subjected to any special form of conditioning. “I think that a director must always be thought of in the universal sense of the term. My reference is Tarkovskij, a filmmaker whose every film contained an additional element of poetry. I don’t believe that talking about a film industry that is corrupted by European money is right. The fact that my personal aesthetic changed depends on my personal reasons. The same is true for another great director from Mali like Souleymane Cissé who most certainly did not make his films to be seen at the Cannes film festival. Let’s begin by thinking of ourselves first and foremost as filmmakers and perhaps things will get better.”