Focus boosts local filmmakers

For decades the dominant images of Africa on film were Hollywood productions. Think Hepburn and Bogart paddling down the Congo river in “The African Queen,” or, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio going out, guns blazing, in “Blood Diamond.”

In recent years, though, there have been signs that a shift is under way. A wave of Western investment in African cinema has focused on sustainability and long-term growth. Rather than using Africa as a picturesque backdrop for big-budget studio productions, filmmakers from outside the continent and various fests are looking to cultivate a new generation of African talent.

“We’re trying to set a stage where African filmmakers are reaching out to each other … (and) also are in dialogue with folks here in the States,” says Focus Features topper James Schamus, who, three years ago, helped lay the groundwork for the company’s Africa First program with Completion Films prexy Kisha Cameron-Dingle.

The emphasis is on discovering fresh talent, increasing the visibility of emerging filmmakers, opening up networks for distribution and building bridges with African helmers, who often harbor “a deep suspicion about dealing with American studios,” according to Schamus, because of differences in contracts, rights and other legal issues.

These efforts are just starting to bear fruit, and those involved in the process view it as a long-term investment. “We believe this will be a growing market for not only new generations of great filmmakers, but also new generations of film consumers,” says Schamus.

Focus’ Africa First program, which awards $10,000 to five African filmmakers each year, allowing them to finance post or production of their narrative shorts, has been the only major studio initiative of its kind. But a growing number of shingles are using other means to develop the local industry.

German helmer Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) set up One Fine Day Films in Nairobi, Kenya, as a training ground for aspiring young filmmakers. Indian director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) recently established the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, which is turning the Ugandan capital into a hot spot for East African filmmakers.

American helmer Lee Isaac Chung was so impressed by the local talent during filming of his 2007 pic “Munyurangabo” that he founded a Rwandan outpost for his shingle, Almond Tree Films.

“My strategy was to make a lasting impact on the Rwandan cinema community by focusing all of my attention on a group of 15 filmmakers,” he says, adding that he’s now less focused on developing their talents than “connecting them to Western organizations who provide grants or opportunities to showcase their films.”

There’s been a shift on the festival circuit as well, helped by the emergence of small, dynamic African film festivals in the West, and a new generation of festival programmers looking to spotlight fresh African talent.

“The big festivals tend to be (engaging) in a way that gives some profile for African cinema, but they’re still always looking for ways to have more and more meaningful involvement with cinema on the continent,” says June Givanni, former programmer of the Toronto Film Festival’s Planet Africa series.

Rotterdam’s “Forget Africa” program last year signaled that festival’s intent to put a greater emphasis on African filmmakers, says festival director Gertjan Zuilhof. Building on the program’s success, Rotterdam this year sent seven African helmers to China to collaborate with their Asian counterparts.

Zuilhof saw it as a way to expose young African helmers to successful production techniques they might apply back home.

“Young Asian filmmakers make their films quite efficiently on low budgets, and use digital technologies,” he says. “I thought it would be helpful for African filmmakers to get to know this way of working.”

Berlin’s Durban Talent Campus, which will hold its fourth edition this year, has also become an important training ground for young helmers.

Berlin festival director Dieter Kosslick says one of the campus’ goals was “to strengthen and support regional structures (by) bringing the established film industry together with the upcoming one.”

Still, the loose structures that exist in Africa remain an obstacle for American studios and distribs, who are often unfamiliar with the continent’s varying business models and legal frameworks.

“Everybody approaches African cinema as if they’re talking about a country,” says Givanni, the former Toronto programmer. “There are national and regional variations; you can’t approach it like you’re talking about French cinema.”

The next step is to challenge the mainstream perception of Africa “as not really a dynamic place” for filmmaking in a way that translates into greater distribution, says Joslyn Barnes, who along with Danny Glover co-founded Louverture Films to help promote and cultivate filmmaking in the developing world.

“I think what we can do that would really be of benefit to people on the continent is to create the distribution avenues, to create some windows for the films to be seen,” she says.

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