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If there is anything that can be called "African Cinema," it is certainly in a precarious state today. Over the last few years the production of African films (films made in Africa by Africans), already extremely limited, has declined noticeably. Each year fewer African films are presented at major world festivals and the one or two films that do make the selection are generally dismissed by the critics. FESPACO programming becomes ever more mediocre as the organizers scramble to find enough material to fill the festival schedule. Today even established African filmmakers are having great difficulties finding financing for their projects.
The primary reason for this decline in production is, of course, a decline in financing. African film- makers have always been dependent on European public monies for their productions. France, the major funder of African Cinema, has significantly reduced the level of financing available for African films. The cinema budget from the Ministry of Cooperation previously designated exclusively for African films is now spread throughout the entire Third World.
Fortunately the European Economic Community (EEC) is getting involved
in the financing of African films which will compensate to a certain degree
for the reduction in French funding. EEC funding has a catch, however:
film projects must be presented by African government officials, not by
filmmakers. Filmmakers must solicit the support of their own governments
in order to have funding requests forwarded to the EEC. As many African
officials are not at all interested in promoting work critical of their
regimes, the risk of censorship is real.
The obstacles facing African filmmakers are not limited to production. Distribution of African films is also extremely difficult. African films are financed by European governments but hardly screened in European theaters where they are seen as having limited box office appeal. European television, a major source of funding and distribution for independent films, is also reluctant to broadcast African films. In general African films are pigeon-holed into specific African events: African film festivals, African theme evenings on television. Although organizers argue that these events promote African work by creating venues for it, they also serve inevitably to ghettoize and marginalize African films.
Even worse, however, is the situation for African films on the African continent. In Africa, where African films have the potential for having real mass audience appeal, they aren't screened. This absurd situation is again explained by the economics of dependence. Consider the case of Cameroon. Programming in Cameroonian theaters is controlled by European distributors. Cameroonian theater owners have nothing to do with film selection; they simply screen the films supplied to them year-round by the distributor. Theater owners keep a certain percentage of box-office earnings and send the rest back to the distributor. Programming African films-which are not part of the distributors' package-involves reducing the screenings of pre-programmed films, cutting into distributors' profits and introducing an African filmmaker into the financial equation. It's complicated and Cameroonian theater owners are reluctant to create tension with European distributors on whom they depend so completely.
African films do not fare much better on African television. Television in Africa is still largely state-controlled and in many countries still serves as a tool of government propaganda. This of course implies censorship. None of my films, for example, have been screened by Cameroonian national television (CRTV). Furthermore, African TV buyers are able to purchase American programming at extremely low prices and receive a certain amount of free programming in the various foreign aid packages. There's little motivation and less money for purchasing African films. Luckily satellite television (TV5 and Canal Horizons, for example) has created a window of opportunity for African films. Fees paid are low, and viewership is somewhat limited, but at least satellite allows a certain number of African films to be seen in Africa.
To summarize the current situation in Africa, one can simply say that
African filmmaking, like so many aspects of African economic activity,
remains in a situation of dependence. We are dependent on European governments
and other European public monies for production; we are largely dependent
on European technical personnel and facilities; and we are dependent on
European goodwill for distribution.
Africa is now described as the continent "left behind" by economic development and "forgotten" by international aid. Per capita consumption in Africa today is 20% less than in 1980. 42% of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than $1 per day. It will take at least the equivalent of two generations for sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the standard of living of the mid-1970s. In the year 2000, 50% of all sub-Saharan Africans will be living below the absolute poverty level. Africa, straddled with $200 billion of external debt, received $55 billion in foreign aid in 1996, down from $66 billion in 1994.
As the African continent becomes less and less interesting for the rest of the world (i.e., those with the money), the situation for dependent African cinema can only worsen. To whom do African filmmakers protest this deplorable situation, who cares, who hears them? How long will Europe continue to finance "charity" films, films that aren't taken seriously, films that are marginalized, films that are part of the "development aid" package?
In the current framework, can African cinema ever flourish? If we want independence, if we want to tell our stories, to see our realities presented in the media, we need to get beyond this impasse. We need to stop fighting for crumbs; we need to stop scrambling to remain subservient. Certainly it is time to rethink "African cinema" in its entirety. We need new definitions and new working methods. We need to make films and filmmaking accessible to more Africans so that we can develop our own media industries.
Today it is possible to rethink African media. The development of digital video and digital editing have revolutionized media-making. It is possible to produce high quality work at significantly reduced costs. The new digital video technologies can liberate us, allowing us to create our own work, accessible to our own populations. When we think alternatively, the possibilities expand.
Consider the example of my last documentary project, Chef! Before making Chef! I had never considered working in video. For me, a film had to be shot, edited, and mixed in film. In December, 1997 I was in Cameroon with my DVCam camera; I planned to tape some traditional festivities and dances. One morning I was walking with my camera and happened across a tense scene of vigilante justice. Due to the urgency of the situation, I ended up shooting a project on video. I was able to start the documentary without financing; I was able to shoot alone. It was a less than perfect situation, but it clearly illustrated the potential of this format. With DVCam, production costs are dramatically reduced. Post-production costs can also be kept down with broadcast quality digital output.
So how about video?. It offers not only affordable production but has a potential for distribution. All over Africa, one finds small video "theaters," places where people gather to watch videos. Video theaters could also show African films and they could be profitable. However, as they exist now, many video theaters are not much more than a VCR in a bar. In order to attract a sufficient number of paying spectators, video theaters will have to be larger and more comfortable. This represents an investment, but at a level which could be affordable for local entrepreneurs. Video films could then be screened at video theaters the same way films are projected at movie theaters. The number of video copies would have to be strictly controlled to prevent illegal dubbing.
I know the interest is there. On the few occasions that my work has been screened in Cameroonian movie theaters, the turnout has been impressive. Africans want to see African films. The myth that African films do not have box office appeal is just that, a myth.
It is even possible to imagine that African filmmakers could recoup their (reduced) production costs through local video theater distribution. And after the films have traveled around the video theater circuit, there is the home video market to exploit. The financial potential may not be enormous initially, but could cover costs. This is the first step towards building a self-reliant, domestic media industry.
If we can develop and embrace an alternative definition of cinema (which doesn't mean that we won't continue seeking financing and shooting in film!), we will certainly soon thereafter see a dramatic increase in the number of films produced, and a diversification of subjects, styles, and voices. As film- making becomes accessible to more Africans, the resulting diversification of outlooks and visions will serve to invigorate our moribund audiovisual industries, creating more opportunities for both video and film and challenging the monolithic state media to catch up.
This diversification could potentially impact society as a whole, as
it would also represent a fundamental shift, a true democratization of
African media creating a forum for freedom of expression. Furthermore,
a diverse and invigorated African cinema-even if some of this "cinema"
originates on video-would certainly have more audience appeal outside
of Africa. And so, perhaps we could begin to effectively challenge existing
We can tell our own stories, our way, with our own means. We have the capability. And isn't "cinema" ultimately about telling stories?
(Jean-Marie Teno was born in Famleng, Cameroon in 1954. He graduated from the University of Valenciennes in 1981 in filmmaking and worked for 15 years as an editor at France 3. Four of his films were formerly in the Library of African Cinema collection: Afrique, je te plumerai, Clando, Chef! and Tête dans les nuages.)
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