By Lizelle Bisschoff
African cinema has, historically and contemporarily, been hugely marginalised in film distribution and exhibition all over the world – African films constitute around 1% of public film exhibition worldwide. The Africa in Motion (AiM) film festival, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, was conceived as an initiative to overcome this underrepresentation of African film, particularly in British film culture.
The third annual Africa in Motion film festival took place from 23 October to 2 November 2008, with screenings of over 50 films from 22 African countries taking place primarily at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse Cinema, the festival’s main host.
The main rationale behind the festival has been, since its inception, a belief in the importance of creating access to African cinema for British audiences and providing opportunities for African filmmakers to exhibit their work in the UK.
The festival positions itself first and foremost as an arts festival, celebrating creativity, innovation and artistic excellence. As such, AiM is not a ‘development initiative’, although there are of course obvious socio-cultural benefits in providing opportunities for the British public to view authentic representations of African traditions, histories and cultures, as created by Africans themselves.
There is a long tradition in Western (North American, British and European) cinema of Africa being represented and appropriated by directors from outside of Africa, and of the continent being used as an exotic backdrop to tell primarily Western stories. Furthermore, the way that Africa has been constructed in the Western imaginery, through ‘official’ history, the media and global politics, has always been in need of urgent revision. African cinema is largely a post-colonial endeavour, and as such is relatively young in comparison to film industries in the US, Europe and Britain (with the exception of Egypt and South Africa, which have the two oldest film industries on the continent and colonial histories which differ from the majority of other African countries).
African directors are increasingly taking on the challenge of re-writing history and recovering neglected and repressed stories and they are doing this with an artistic skill and creative vision at par with the greatest films made anywhere in the world. The Africa in Motion film festival honours and celebrates these hugely significant contributions of African filmmakers to world cinema.
The curatorial approach to Africa in Motion emphasises the diversity of filmmaking practices on the continent, and thus incorporates films from a variety of countries, time periods, genres, styles and themes. Africa in Motion 2008 opened with a classic film, The Land (el-Ard, 1969) by the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, as a tribute to this hugely important pioneering filmmaker who passed away in July last year.
The opening weekend of the festival continued this emphasis on the classic films of African cinema, with retrospectives of the work of two of the most significant and talented filmmakers to emerge from francophone West Africa – Malian director Souleymane Cissé and Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré. Three films of each director were screened. Cissé’s films, Work (Baara, 1978), The Wind (Finye, 1982) and Brightness (Yeelen, 1987) were screened chronologically and thus provided a clear trajectory of how his earlier socio-politically themed and social realist filmmaking developed into the mythically themed and non-realist filmmaking of his later career, culminating in the extraordinary feature Yeelen. Kaboré’s retrospective included the feature God’s Gift (Wend Kuuni, 1982), set in rural, pre-colonial Africa and arguably Kaboré’s best-known film, as well as its sequel Buud Yam (1997), which revisits the beloved child characters, now adults, which Kaboré created in Wend Kuuni. Kaboré’s third film screened at AiM was Zan Boko (1988), in which he addresses the conflict of tradition versus modernity in contemporary African cultures, a recurring theme in African cinema.
After the opening weekend’s screenings of some of the most important African classics, the festival’s focus shifted to contemporary highly acclaimed and award-winning feature films. This commenced with pioneering Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s female-centred Faat Kine (2001), his second last film before his death in June 2007 and the first in his planned trilogy of films celebrating the everyday heroism of African women. Sembene’s legacy as ‘the father of African cinema’ lives on through the work of contemporary Senegalese directors such as Mousa Sene Absa whose film Tableau Ferraille (1997) was screened at the festival. This film continues on one of the most important themes set in Sembene’s work – a condemnation of the exploits of a corrupt post-colonial elite destroying the promise of true African independence.
The festival’s focus on contemporary African cinema moved beyond francophone West Africa, which historically dominated sub-Saharan African cinema, to also include films from other parts of the continent. South African director Khalo Matabane’s docu-fiction film Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005), an emotive interrogation of contemporary multi-cultural South African society, is indicative of the emergence of talented black filmmakers in post-apartheid South African cinema. Nigerian director Newton Aduaka’s Ezra (2007) is a hard-hitting but poignant film which highlights the plight of African child soldiers. Ezra won the grand prize at the 2007 FESPACO film festival, the most important African film festival which takes place biennially in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Nigerian cinema is of course best-known for its prolific video-film industry, dubbed Nollywood, the first and currently only economically self-sustainable film industry in Africa and the third largest film industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. AiM included a screening of Bleeding Rose (2007) by London-based Nollywood director Chucks Mordi. Winner of the Best Nigerian Feature Film at the 2007 Lagos International Film Festival, Bleeding Rose is quintessential low-budget Nollywood dealing with familiar Nollywood themes such as witchcraft and Christianity.
The focus on contemporary features also included films from underrepresented regions with a smaller output of films than in the more prolific West and South African film industries. Bongoland II: There is no place like home (2008) by Tanzanian director Josiah Kibira provided a rare opportunity to audiences to view a Swahili film. The film addresses the pertinent issue of the African immigrant returning home with a sharp satire and wit. Lusophone African cinema was represented by Angolan director Zézé Gamboa’s award-winning film The Hero (O Heroi, 2004), which addresses Angola’s tragic past of forty years of uninterrupted war, and its uncertain future, through the central character of an ex-soldier. Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Dry Season (Daratt, 2006) also addresses the difficult path towards peace and reconciliation in a country which recent past has been shaped by war and the desire for retribution. Contemporary North African cinema was represented by female Algerian director Djamila Sahraoui’s Enough! (Barakat!, 2006), once again addressing the violent history of a war-torn country through the eyes of two central female characters. AiM 2008 closed with Guinean director Cheick Fantamady Camara’s Clouds over Conakry (Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry, 2007), which picks up the recurrent tradition-versus-modernity theme as a liberal political cartoonist learns that the spirits have chosen him instead of his older brother to succeed his father as imam of Guinea’s capital Conakry.
The range of contemporary fiction feature films was complemented by a variety of captivating documentaries. UK-based Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa’s This Is My Africa (2008) documents the perceptions and reflections of 20 London residents who love the African continent, thus giving a voice to people from the African diaspora. An afternoon of documentary screenings at the Edinburgh College of Art explored African identity through the themes of sport (Zulu Surf Riders by Carlos Francisco, South Africa, 2008), music (African Underground: Democracy in Dakar by Nomadic Wax & Sol Productions, US/Senegal, 2007), and dance (Dance Got Me by Ingrid Sinclair, Zimbabwe/UK, 2006) respectively. Andy Jones’ As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude continued the musical theme through a portrait of Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude, probably the oldest singer on the world stage today. AiM 2008 had a special focus on the Bushmen of Southern Africa, with the screenings of two documentaries – South African director Rehad Desai’s Bushman’s Secret (2006) and Namibian director Ginger Mauney’s Legends of the Bushmen (1997).
The short film format, often neglected in cinema exhibition, was firmly incorporated in the festival through the hosting of a short film competition. Eight films were shortlisted from over 60 entries, and these films were screened at the festival with the winner being announced directly afterwards by Burkinabe filmmaker Gaston Kaboré, who chaired the jury. Six African countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco – were represented by the eight shortlisted films. Mozambican director Rogerio Manjate won the first prize of ₤1,000 with his heart-warming three-minute short I Love You (2007) and Tunisian director Anis Lassoued’s magic realist tale Magic Crop (2006) won the audience choice award. The AiM short film competition was open to emerging African filmmakers who have not completed feature-length films yet and thus the competition was intended to stimulate and reward filmmaking endeavours by young African filmmakers, who often struggle against tremendous odds to fulfill their filmmaking ambitions.
The diversity of African cinema was not only celebrated by the wide genre representation which spanned feature fiction films, documentaries and shorts, but also by an adventurous new strand of late-night screenings of unusual, daring and provocative African films. Included here were experimental South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof’s erotic feature SMS Sugar Man (2006), the first feature film shot on mobile phone cameras, as well as South Africa-based Nigerian director Akin Omotoso’s short film Jesus and the Giant (2008), short entirely on a digital stills camera with 7,000 photographs stitched together to create the final montage. Also screened in this strand were Teco Benson’s outrageous pre-Nollywood lo-fi video-film Highway to the Grave (2002) and South African director Richard Stanley’s documentary The White Darkness (2002), on voodoo practices in Haiti, as well as his cult classic Dust Devil (1992), a meta-physical horror set in the Namibian desert. The series of late-night screenings was intended to challenge audience perceptions of what African cinema is or should be, and also contributed to expanding AiM’s audiences beyond lovers of world cinema who are particularly drawn to the more conventional features and classic African films.
Continuing the festival’s programming emphasis on diversity AiM 2008 included a focus on African animation, with animation shorts being screened in two sessions, one for adults and one for children. Shorts from all over the continent, including South Africa, Kenya, Niger, DRC and Egypt, incorporated a variety of animation techniques such as cut-out, claymation, stop-motion and computer animation. The themes of the animations were as varied as their styles: UNESCO’s Africa Animated series was intended to create authentic educational and entertaining television programmes for African children; Congolese director Jean Michel Kibushi’s claymation creations retell folktales he recalled from his childhood; and a collection of Kenyan animators use the medium for political commentary, much in the same way as satirical newspaper cartoons.
Africa in Motion has, since its inception, attempted to constitute an event rather than consisting merely of film screenings, and thus filmmakers are invited to the festival to host question and answer sessions with audiences and present masterclasses. Ten African filmmakers were invited to the festival in 2008, including Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré, who delighted audiences with entertaining anecdotes from his filmmaking experiences. All the screenings were introduced by film scholars and many screenings were followed by panel discussions. A wide range of complementary events further contributed to making AiM a rich and well-rounded event. The festival hosted a wine tasting event with South African wine, several live music performances by African musicians, an African storytelling event, an animation workshop for children, a book launch, and an exhibition of Bushmen art work and jewellery.
Africa in Motion is currently the biggest African film festival in the UK, and for the first time in 2008 a sub-selection of the programme toured to 12 cities across the UK through November and December, under the title AiM on Tour. Audience reception of the festival was extremely positive with more than half of the screenings in Edinburgh sold out, and wide press coverage was achieved locally, nationally and internationally. With the current climate of worldwide economic repression and continuing cuts in public funding, especially for the arts, the future of the Africa in Motion film festival might appear somewhat uncertain, but as long as there is a strong demand for African cinema in the UK, it is the organisers’ hope that the festival would be able to continue its aim of bringing the best of African cinema to British audiences.