While African filmmakers have long struggled to reach audiences outside the continent — even more so at prestigious showcases like the Berlinale — organizers are introducing a new initiative to put cinema from sub-Saharan Africa front and center during this year’s European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin.
Attached to the historic Martin-Gropius-Bau, the Berlinale Africa Hub will offer a platform for African creators and innovators to showcase what EFM director Matthijs Wouter Knol calls “a new generation” eager to transform African film.
The hub will spotlight innovations in virtual reality and 360-degree storytelling, new distribution and marketing models on the continent, and the growing number of VOD platforms that have emerged across Africa in recent years.
One of the goals, according to Knol, is to combat “the stereotypes and prejudices that normally can be heard … when it comes to African cinema.”
South African producer Steven Markovitz, of Electric South, a non-profit organization providing support and mentorship for digital visual storytellers in Africa, notes that Africa’s often perceived as being one step behind the rest of the world.
“I hope by this kind of display of VR and new media, the rest of the world will get a sense that Africa is innovating and is experimenting with new formats, and finding new ways of telling stories,” he says.
“What’s refreshing about it is that the philosophy is not how can Europe help Africa. It’s that what can the rest of the world learn from Africa.”
The Africa Hub’s first edition is an initiative of the EFM, in cooperation with the World Cinema Fund, Berlinale Talents (and its sister program, Talents Durban), and the Berlinale Co-Production Market, with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office.
The initiative underscores what has been a long-running commitment by the Berlinale to both showcase and develop filmmaking across the African continent. Last year the World Cinema Fund introduced a new program, WCF Africa, to promote films from sub-Saharan Africa. And this year Talents Durban, which was established with the support of Berlinale Talents to foster emerging African filmmakers, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary.
One of the hub’s goals is to bring together a wide range of industry leaders from across the vast continent. But for European audiences, buyers, and prospective co-production partners, it offers a chance “to help other players who are not familiar with the African market yet to find themselves in that new space, which is growing,” says Philipp Hoffman, of Cologne-based sales outfit Rushlake Media, which specializes in licensing for VOD markets and has a strong focus on African content.
Hoffman notes that in the past, “there has been a complete disconnect” between African producers and foreign stakeholders. “It was due time to bring them together,” he says.
The spotlight at this year’s Berlinale comes at a time of increasing anxiety over Europe’s borders, and the waves of refugees and migrants who — whether fleeing war, political repression, religious violence, or economic uncertainty — have poured into the continent in recent years. Despite the risks, many African migrants continue to make the perilous sea crossing to southern Europe in search of a better life.
After a deadly terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz last December, which claimed 12 lives, there’s been increasing debate over the tide of refugees in Germany, a country that has opened its doors to more than one million people since 2015.
While right-wing movements have been emboldened across much of Europe, and are likely to play an important role in pivotal elections in Germany and France this year, Knol sees initiatives like the Africa Hub as a way to combat xenophobia by fostering tolerance.
“Film is a very strong way to make people understand each other’s worlds,” says Knol, calling it an “important tool to make people better understand what’s going on on both sides of the Mediterranean.”
He also notes that building stronger ties with Africa makes practical sense. On a continent of a billion potential consumers, whose growing demand for content has been fueled by a mobile phone boom, the ground is fertile for “leapfrog” technologies to take root, paving the way for innovations that could inspire the rest of the world.
“The EFM needs Africa,” says Knol.