African film biz marks era of unity, productivity

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Filmmaker John Singleton wants to bring his Hollywood know-how to Africa, a continent that he calls home despite the fact that he’s just visited here for the first time.

Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) was a guest of honor at the recent FESPACO Pan-African Film Festival, the biggest film event ever in Africa, held in Ouagadougou. And the filmer’s enthusiasm was emblematic of the new spirit of unity and confidence that presided over this year’s festivities.

Among the 122 films shown Feb. 20-27 were 40 new African features — a record number to be produced in the two years between fests.

Tackling problems

Even more important, steps are being taken to tackle the daunting problems that dog the African film industry — including a shortage of screens, widespread illiteracy and language barriers, lack of government subsidies for production, and difficulties in utilizing local labs and studios.

Efforts are under way to coordinate the activities of filmmakers, organizations, governments and international agencies to promote African filmmaking and filmgoing.

Already the progress is encouraging:

o Festivals and film weeks dedicated to African film have been or will be held in Africa and worldwide, in cities including Los Angeles, Milan, New York, Amsterdam, Zurich, Johannesburg, Vienna and Montreal.

o Many African films have been seen, and in some cases won major prizes, at various festivals. A score of others have been spotlighted in fest sidebars.

o The film schools in Ghana and Kenya have survived recent economic and political storms and continue to provide new talent. UNESCO has run film courses in a number of countries and may soon help establish a film school in Zimbabwe.

o Markets now flank many of the continent’s festivals, and African films are finding their way into distribution and onto European TV screens. At the 1993 MICA — the best-organized film market in the Third World and part of FESPACO/Ouagadougou — 317 films were screened for buyers from 20 countries, with 10 buyers from the U.S. alone.

o Film laws have come into existence, in a number of countries, providing for a ticket tax that goes toward film financing. Additional film laws are about to be introduced that would allow the free circulation of African films throughout the continent by eliminating all taxation and customs levies.

o A central ticketing system has been introduced in some countries, which allows for accurate control of revenues.

o Co-production agreements have been signed among African nations and between African states and industrialized nations. A ground-breaking agreement between France and Burkina Faso gives African filmmakers access to progressive French film laws.

o Psychological barriers between African nations are disappearing. For the first time, English-speaking Africa is massively represented in the newly reorganized FEPACI (the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers), which had been dominated by French-speaking nations.

Singleton, who is location-hunting for “Seasons,” scripted by Akoswa Busia, a Ghanaian actress based in Hollywood, is not the only American filmmaker who has expresses interest in African filmmaking. Danny Glover is involved in a number of co-production projects.

Singleton view

“African cinema,” Singleton said, “must define its own aesthetic, its own sensibility and texture in the modern world.” Singleton points out that African music and literature have managed to do this — and to be influential in the rest of the world.

“I’m trying to create a style in which the African tradition of oral storytelling is transferred to film,” he says.