6 November 2012
The seventh edition of the Africa in Motion film festival has just finished, and after a weekend of sleeping and not much else, I am now in contemplative mode, and reflecting on the successes (and in some instances, also challenges and “failures”) of this year’s festival. With our overarching theme of “Modern Africa”, it was only logical to us that contemporary African arts and culture should take centre stage in the festival screenings and discussions, which is exactly what we did. We hosted a symposium at the University of Edinburgh on Sat 27 November, entitled “African Popular Culture in the 21st Century” and papers were delivered by academics and cultural practitioners on topics as diverse (but nonetheless related) as Ghanaian ‘hiplife’ music (a reconfiguration of Ghana’s highlife pop music and globalised hip-hop music); African popular fiction; African film festivals and audiences; contemporary manifestations of the traditional Ciwara cultural practices of Mali; and a presentation by a group of young diaspora Africans originally from the horn of Africa, telling the audience of their work in reconnecting with their African heritage and searching for their identities while living in the UK. What became clear in all these presentations is that contemporary popular culture and arts in Africa is always a negotiation between the past and the present, between tradition and modernity, and is very much embedded in the search for African identities in today’s globalised, pluralised world. Today, very few of us Africans are from, in and connected to only one place, and it is the multiplicity of our experiences and influences that make up the vibrant and multi-layered landscape that define African identity in the contemporary world.
Our focus on contemporary art and culture also included a major emphasis on the “popular”, which has for long been a subject of scholarly and theoretical investigation. For almost 25 years now, to be exact, ever since Karen Barber’s influential and seminal essay, “Popular Arts in Africa”, appeared in 1987. I won’t go into the detail of the rather involved theoretical notions she developed to describe the “popular”, but what I would give is a rather simplified definition that the “popular” in Africa means that which is produced and consumed by “the people”. This is quite significant, as it means art and culture not created and enforced “from above” (like the notion of “high art” in the Western world which we might align with art forms such as opera and symphony orchestras), but art and culture that is created by ordinary people. In an African context it is particularly significant because many “ordinary” people in Africa have no voice and seemingly little opportunity to participate in the production, dissemination and consumption of art and culture.
Taking into account then this focus on the “popular” and “the people”, in the context of a film festival, we wanted to incorporate a focus on the popular African video-film industries, which are very much manifestations of popular culture in contemporary Africa, and have even been described as the biggest explosion of popular culture that the continent has ever seen. This phenomenon of course started in Nigeria and became widely known as Nollywood, although what is lesser known is that Ghana started producing video-films almost at the same time as Nigeria, although the industry in Ghana never got a catchy name (Ghallywood has been suggested, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Nollywood!). The production output of these industries is phenomenal, with Nollywood being the 3rd biggest film industry in the world, and the first economically self-sustainable film industry in Africa. Anyone can now be a filmmaker, by making use of affordable and accessible digital technology to produce and distribute films. However, these films are regularly criticised for their low production values, their melodramatic storylines, their stereotypical character portrayals… So, the challenge is what to do with these films in the context of an African film festival in the UK, with audiences used to the “arthouse” cinema from francophone West Africa, and how to discuss these films academically and theoretically? Birgit Meyer, expert in Ghanaian video-film, and Ono Okome, one of the pioneers of Nollywood scholarship, attempted to address these dilemmas in the seminars they presented at Africa in Motion, calling for these films to be seen as expressions of local, public culture, as manifestations of African modernity, and as ongoing conversations between producers and audiences. This discussion was also included in the Saturday symposium, which ended with a roundtable on the video-film industries.
After the symposium, we set off for the Filmhouse cinema, where we screened a Ghanaian film, ELMINA, not exactly a typical video-film, as it was produced by a white artist from New York, but it was directed by a well-known Ghanaian video-filmmaker, and featured many popular Ghanaian actors. The screening created controversy, which I wouldn’t repeat here, as the debate has already been very astutely captured by Dave Holmes, a self-confessed cinephile who is also part of the AiM organising team, here. The following week we also screened a Nollywood film, MAAMI, by pioneering Nollywood director Tunde Kelani. Tunde is one of the only Nollywood directors whose films have started to travel internationally, as his films are of a higher quality than the average Nollywood film, and in this sense he has become a worldwide spokesperson and ambassador for Nollywood. We were in luck, because the National Film and Video Censors Board of Nigeria decided at the last minute to fly Tunde over the Edinburgh (with around 11 members of the Board accompanying him!) and thus we had the great pleasure of welcoming Tunde to Edinburgh and Glasgow. And a pleasure it was indeed, as Tunde is interesting, wise, funny, warm and articulate and we were much entertained by his many anecdotes of his filmmaking experiences in the jungles of Nollywood.
Video-films aside, our focus on popular African arts and culture within the context of “Modern Africa” also included no less than a full day of documentary screenings on these topics, covering everything from the poetry of a Western Saharan griot; post-revolution art in Cairo; activist hip-hop from Senegal; Goema music from Cape Town; griot music from West Africa; hip-hop from Kenya; graffiti, fashion design, hip-hop, heavy metal, and video design from South Africa; and fashion, music and sport from Congo-Brazzaville! All these screenings, discussions, seminars and presentations around African popular and contemporary culture had a fairly simple aim: to display the vibrancy and diversity of cultural and artistic production on the continent and to create discussions around these topics. Of course, we are not denying that the continent also struggles with many challenges, and some of these were addressed in other screenings and discussions, but if there is one thing that AiM 2012’s focus on contemporary popular culture in Africa showed very clearly, it is that creativity is an essential human need and endeavour that can even flourish under the most unlikely and challenging of circumstances. In fact, it is often exactly the challenges of modern Africa that provide the most fertile breeding grounds for some pretty astonishing creative expression.
By Lizelle Bisschoff, festival founder and programme consultant