'All news out of Africa is bad' – Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari)
Less than a year ago, I had never been to Africa. There was no reason to go. I had no need. It was more a question of reluctance, or even fear. It took a while, maybe several years, before I realised that there would never be any reason to go to Africa. That I would have to make a reason.
You don’t have to be a connoisseur to see that African cinema is barely represented at international film festivals and that the few films that are shot in Africa are often not on an international level and usually come from the same couple of countries – especially from Francophone countries in West Africa. Not that African films aren’t welcome – on the contrary, even a mediocre film would be received with open arms.
I had the possibly naive thought that if I went to other countries – countries that are not represented on the cinematographic map – I might find something anyway. Probably not mature, beautifully produced features, but possibly some nice short films or documentaries. And why not local genre films that might also work beyond their intended audience? But at the same time I was afraid to return home empty-handed. And basically I didn’t want to go there empty-handed either.
Then I had an idea, the consequences of which I could not immediately see. I imagined going to each country I was to visit with an international film maker in tow. The knife would then cut in several ways. This film maker would be inspired by the journey and the confrontation with a different culture and could make a short film for the festival. At the end of the project, I would at least have a program, for the film maker would in addition make contact with local film makers easier and more interesting. For film makers it is, after all, more interesting to talk about cameras and actors with a film maker with an international reputation than about premieres or even financing with a festival programmer.
Okay, so I took an interesting film maker with me to Cameroon, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Angola, Rwanda, Mozambique and Congo Brazzaville, but also a modest budget for a local production. There had to be a reason why so many African productions did not leave their continent, or even their own country, and that reason was, I suspected, the lack of professional postproduction and especially subtitling. There was of course more going on, but Angolan films, for instance – that’s where I found the genre films I had hoped to find – are locked up in their stubborn country and above all in the Portuguese language. Subtitling could help here.
After several months, I could not really say that I had never been to Africa before. But I kept meeting film makers who were in Africa for the first time and looking around with a fresh gaze and being overwhelmed. Yes, all of those film makers had never before been in Africa. I wanted to leave behind me the pessimism of the experts for this project. To see whether it was possible to look at Africa without all the baggage.
I didn’t find a local project or a local film maker in every country with whom I wanted to make a programme or was able to, but in quite a large number of countries, I did. These include projects which may surprise people, such as the Cameroonian Way to the Cross by Emile-Aime Chah Yibain, alias Ancestor. Ancestor comes from a group of pious hip-hop film makers from Buea (English-language Cameroon) and made his film about the Passion of Christ with a church congregation. In it, he did not deny his faith, or his background as a music-video maker. Also striking are the large number of short comic films by Les Boulistes, the collective of actors and film makers from Congo, Brazzaville. They are bizarre, on the edge of slapstick and mildly anarchic – and they are rooted entirely in local social conditions.
Artists in Africa are one step ahead of film makers. The Ugandan artist Ssenkaaba Samson, working under the name Xenson and also a hip-hop video maker (the hip-hop movement is evidently one of the most important cultural developments in Africa, also in the field of film), makes work at an international level. For this project, he is preparing a special performance and installation.
In the meantime, the international film makers all have done more than could be expected of them. They have helped energetically in making contact with local film makers and quite often worked with them on projects. Many felt challenged by the confrontation with Africa to make much more ambitious films than had been asked of them. The budget we could offer them was minimal, but they managed to economise or augment it from other sources. That several films of feature length and feature appeal are now having their premieres is one of the small miracles of this project.