Film producers and directors across Africa are facing an identity crisis as a shift in taste toward Hollywood-style action movies threatens the continent’s long tradition of “liberation” filmmaking.
At a recent seminar here, some of Africa’s most respected filmmakers were told by their younger colleagues to stop bemoaning the fact that most movies shown on the continent originate in Hollywood and to start making movies that Africans will pay to see.
Tunisian producer Ahmet Attia opened the seminar complaining that government subsidies in his country had been cut from 20% to 10% of production costs. The industry only stays afloat thanks to funding by the French and Italian governments and the European Union, he says.
Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah followed by blaming his government’s nationalization of the industry for the fact that only 15 to 20 Egyptian movies a year are being made, as opposed to the 200 made annually in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We have a crisis,” he said. For one of Africa’s best-known filmmakers, Djibril Diop Mambety of Senegal, the answer to the crisis is dubbing.
“Dubbing – into English, French and Portuguese – is very crucial for distribution,” Mambety said.
He forecast that dubbing will help overcome the lack of marketability of African films, a problem the industry has endured since 1963, when Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene made “Borom Sarret,” the first film produced for a paying audience by an African in Africa.
From that start, African cinema was used initially as a tool for liberation from colonialism, a means of presenting a positive image of Africa in contrast to the Tarzan jungle melodramas and demeaning stereotypes being presented by foreign filmmakers.
As diverse as the people and cultures they represented, works by African filmmakers evolved in the 1970s and 1980s to being more didactic in nature – directors aimed to transform their societies by making films of historical, cultural, political and aesthetic significance.
However, because of the problems of distribution and exhibition, and because of severe financial restrictions caused by the slashing of government subsidies, producers and directors began in the early 1990s to include an element of entertainment in their films.
Today’s young filmmakers, however, believe their more established colleagues have not moved far enough.
Ghanaian filmmaker Panji Anoff, 28, led the attack at the seminar, which coincided with the annual African film awards hosted by South African pay TV station M-Net.
“We have been making films for critics, not for the public,” Anoff said. “If I don’t make the kind of movie people want to see, I am to blame.”
Anoff managed to make a feature movie, “Back Home Again,” for less than $50,000 by stealing a 35mm camera from a museum in Ghana and persuading his friends to act for free.
The premiere of his movie was a sell-out, thanks mainly to the fact that because he couldn’t afford to print tickets, customers were given a password that allowed them into the theater.
Anoff believes he will eventually recoup his costs because his movie has translated the story-telling technique into celluloid.
This, he believes, will be the salvation of cinema in Africa.
“We can teach Hollywood how to relate a good story,” Anoff said.