Five of Africa’s top independent filmmakers participated in a discussion panel at the 2017 Rapid Lion South African International Film Festival, sharing their thoughts on the state of African cinema and its future.
The RapidLion South African International Film Festival is showcasing the best films and filmmakers of Africa and its diaspora, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) members. The festival will run until 12 March 2017 at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg.
The festival includes screenings of films and documentaries, as well as panel discussions and an awards ceremony. The workshops focus on deepening mutual understanding, strengthening collaborative relations and exploring opportunities for growth and investment in the filmmaking industry.
Brand South Africa has partnered with RapidLion to celebrate African filmmaking, particularly South African cinema. Under the theme of Inspiring New Ways, the partnership aims at soliciting ideas and perspectives from filmmakers and industry players on how African – and the South African Nation Brand – stories can be communicated in visual form, through compelling storytelling.
During a recent panel chaired by festival director Eric Miyeni, a diverse group of African directors spoke about their experiences working in the industry, promoting their films to a global audience and finding the spirit of true African storytelling.
The discussion focussed specifically around the theme of “how should cinema reflect Africa today?”.
The five filmmakers were:
David Mboussou, Gabonese director of the documentary series I am Congo.
Arthur Musah, US-based, Ghana-born documentary maker. His film Naija Beta follows Nigerian undergraduates returning home to host a robotics summer camp for high schools.
South African documentarian Vincent Moloi. His documentary, Skulls of My People, is an in-depth look at the history of German colonialism in Namibia and its effect on the country’s indigenous people.
Steve Gukas, Nigerian director of the highly praised Ebola drama 93 Days, which stars Danny Glover.
South Africa’s Daryne Joshua, director of the critically acclaimed prison drama Noem My Skollie.
Miyeni opened the discussion highlighting the challenges of being an African filmmaker attempting to take African stories to the rest of the world. With a legacy of these stories being told through a more Western/European lens, African filmmakers, he said, have a responsibility to represent the continent and its people more accurately. Filmmakers also needed to find the stories that have yet to be told, and take those stories to the world.
Mboussou concurred, aptly using an African proverb – “until lions are able to tell the story, hunters will always be the winners” – to encourage the sharing of ideas and knowledge between the continent’s filmmakers and finding common ground to get more African stories told globally.
Musah, as American-Ghanaian, said it was important to get the stories he told right through diligent, honest research.
Gukas reiterated that African stories need not fulfil conventional Western film narratives, but focus on the human experience. “Africans can find any story to tell, good or bad, as long as it was mindful of the right sensibilities and responsibilities of telling those stories.”
Joshua, who with Skollie, attempted to tell a different kind of story about South Africa’s coloured community, said it was important to get the narratives right through cooperation and collaboration with the community whose stories filmmakers are attempting to tell.
What challenges exist within African cinema?
Miyeni asked panellists what they considered are the issues negatively impacting African storytelling in film.
Across the board, the panel agreed that combating African stereotypes in film was imperative.
Musah said as a filmmaker working in Africa and the US, it was a difficult to not be influenced by the usual Western film tropes that characterised Africa in film. His role as filmmaker, in general, was to fight clichés and champion realism in the stories he told.
Moloi said that filmmakers, particularly documentarians, needed to treat their subjects with respect.
Joshua added that even though it was sometimes challenging to find a positive angle in telling real stories, audiences responded well to uplifting, optimistic storytelling even when dealing with difficult themes.
Gukas said the most prevalent challenge to making great African cinema was overcoming the “white saviour complex” in films. Not only did the notion of idealising western convention over realistic African stories impact the way the world sees the continent, more importantly, watching “Hollywood heroes” coming to Africa’s rescue impacted the way African audiences see themselves.
From a marketing point of view, panellists agreed that filmmakers and audiences needed access to more platforms to see diverse products from small, independent African filmmakers that often get lost in the larger global cinema marketing machine.
More specialised film festivals are also needed with better access to online video platforms to get the word out and create a buzz around films, no matter how small, and to boosts audiences.
How to make African cinema world class?
Wrapping up the panel, Miyeni asked the filmmakers how the African film industry could compete with international film markets.
Joshua said that even with the exceptional technical skills the continent has built up over the last few years, a focus must now be on writing and storytelling. While finding resources is easy – “all it takes is a pen and a page”- nurturing African writers with good, original and diverse stories is important.
Moloi repeated a call for not only finding new markets for African film, but to create our own markets. “Embrace new media, like online video sharing,” and find ways to control the editorial direction of the art form. Also, as agreed by the entire panel, new funding models need to be found that emphasise content over commerce.
Movie fans, journalists, bloggers and other influencers need to “be champions of African film and stories”, said Gukas. This kind of exposure will change the narrative of the African film industry and change global attitudes. The films are slowly being made, the world just needs to be told about them.
From a technical standpoint, Musah thought specialisation is key. “Perfect the craft, find new ways of doing things using the tools available.”
The Rapid Lion South African International Film Festival ends on 12 March 2017. For more information, check the festival website.