I’m a big fan of North American cinema, and I think it’s important to show their film industry plenty of support. My only problem is that once you’ve seen one or two North American films, you’ve pretty much seen them all. As a diaspora African I’d much rather watch other Africans on the big screen.
Sound odd? A tad racist, even? Of course it does, and yet that’s how many non-Africans think of African cinema.
How is it that stories produced by Africans, be it film, music, or literature, are still considered niche, worthy, or somehow “less” than art created by non-Africans? At best, African cinema is considered “art house”, African art is labelled “craft”, and African literature must focus on the big three (famine, war or poverty) to be deemed authentic.
Author Chimamanda Adichie called this the danger of the “single story” of Africa: a story of catastrophe in which there was “no possibility of feelings more complex than pity; no possibility of a connection as human equals”. If Africa is only ever viewed through a western prism, how can you expect to have anything other than a deeply unbalanced view of a continent of more than 50 countries and 2,000 languages?
Binyavanga Wainaina, whose satirical Granta essay How to Write about Africa went viral a few years ago, says of western films: “Africa is an object, rather than a subject. We are suffering objects or empowering objects or sustainable objects or some kind of objects but we are objects. We don’t have anything to say for ourselves.”
Today sees the launch of the Film Africa festival, which features 50 films over 10 days and highlights the significance of Africans telling their own stories, and how important it is for others to consume them. “The festival aims to bring alternative Africas and visions of Africa to audiences, to compel viewers to reflect on their own assumptions about this vast, fascinating continent,” says its co-director Lindiwe Dovey.
Last year Unesco finally recognised Nigerian cinema, which produces more than 2,000 films a year, as the world’s second largest film industry. “Nollywood”, worth about $250m, is not as productive as Bollywood, but is making more movies than Hollywood. Bombay Dreams and Slumdog were both considered “crossover” Indian films: isn’t it about time African cinema had its own crossover moment?
One of my favourite films of this year is Viva Riva!, a gloriously trashy, fast-paced gangster flick by Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga. It’s great entertainment, and a world away from the stereotype of worthy African cinema. It won six African Movie Academy Awards (including best film and best director) and was named best African movie at the MTV movie awards, so why aren’t more cinemas showing it? I had to wait years before I saw the beautiful Ethiopian film 13 Months of Sunshine (about a marriage of convenience that goes wrong), and only saw it then because a friend lent me her cherished DVD.
Film Africa will see the UK premier of Koundi And National Thursday, by Cameroonian director Ariane Astrid Atodji, which won best documentary at the African film festival of Tarifa. It looks at a village’s attempt to maintain independence. Contrary to the Hollywood version of Africa, this film is about Africans addressing their own poverty without the help of outsiders.
Why do film distributors never come under fire for failing to adequately distribute African cinema? And why is it assumed that white audiences prefer Africa to come with a thinly veiled colonial backdrop, which usually involves a white hero saving a poor downtrodden country from itself? Blood Diamond, anyone?
Africans are now telling their own stories. It’s time the rest of the world started consuming them.
Hannah Pool, The Guardian