S. Africa pic biz looks for solid ground

Despite producing such auteurs as Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cisse and Djibril Diop Mambety, the slow growth of film in sub-Saharan Africa is largely a story of unrealized potential.

While film industries have blossomed in developing nations from Southeast Asia to Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind the rest of the world. Apart from an emerging biz in South Africa, African countries are struggling to develop sustainable industries, with just a handful finding modest success with the low-cost, straight-to-DVD model pioneered by Nigeria.

Yet African filmmakers today have more access to funding than ever before, and a host of initiatives are spurring a quiet revolution that, in the next few years, will herald the arrival of a generation of new voices telling a continent’s untold stories.

Global film funds like the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund, Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, the French-funded World Cinema Support and the Global Film Initiative continue to provide vital financial support to filmmakers in Africa and across the developing world. A growing number of satellite festivals — and Africa programs at established fests — are pushing emerging talent into the global eye.

Combined with a host of smaller initiatives targeting the support of local businesses, these developments are giving filmmakers the skills and knowledge to connect to established industries, says Matthijs Wouter Knol, of the Berlinale’s Talent Campus, which for the past five years has run a pan-African campus in collaboration with the Durban Film Festival. On a continent where formal film schools are lacking, such programs are often the first chance aspiring filmmakers get to learn about the mechanisms of international financing and distribution.

The benefits are also more tangible. Participants in Focus Features’ buzz-generating Africa First program get U.S. distribution, which helps bring exposure to a film that might otherwise not have gotten it, says Completion Films prexy Kisha Cameron-Dingle, who runs the program.

At this year’s Durban fest, French TV network Canal France Intl. introduced an initiative called Haraka! that will award €10,000 ($12,293) to 12 African filmmakers to produce short films, which Canal will distribute across its platforms in Africa and Europe.

The broader impact on local film industries in Africa is hard to quantify. Rotterdam’s Janneke Langelaan says that part of the Hubert Bals Fund’s success lies in the possibilities it creates for aspiring filmmakers. “(It sets) into motion an awareness that this is the sort of film that they can do,” he says.

Berlin’s Knol notes that most of the program’s graduates not only work with and develop local talent when they return to their countries, but transfer vital knowledge and creative energy to their peers.

“They’re sort of the epicenter of a lot of things happening around them,” Knol says.

Deeper engagement has been happening on a smaller scale. In the past few years, East Africa has become a hub of up-and-coming talent, thanks to collaborations between local industries and foreign filmmakers.

Indian helmer Mira Nair’s Maisha Film Lab in Kampala has brought a wave of emerging talents to the Ugandan capital. Tom Tykwer’s Nairobi-based One Fine Day Films draws participants from more than a dozen countries for its annual workshops, which result in collaboration on a feature film. The group’s first pic, “Soul Boy,” has screened at several big festivals around the world, including Berlin, Edinburgh and Palm Springs, since its release last year; their sophomore effort, “Nairobi Half Life,” by Kenyan helmer Tosh Gitonga, was one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Durban Film Fest.

In Rwanda, American helmer Lee Isaac Chung’s shingle, Almond Tree Rwanda, has helped put that small country on the map, with a number of promising shorts screening in fests like Tribeca and Rotterdam. Encouraged by Chung’s support, the Almond Tree team has gone on to offer its own training and mentoring programs, enabling an energetic production base to grow around them.

Where small, homegrown industries exist, these programs can act as a catalyst. In the words of Cameron-Dingle, “We can’t stimulate something that doesn’t already exist in some form.”

Perhaps most importantly, a generation of young filmmakers is emerging across Africa with a global vision that reflects the realities of life on the continent today. Rapid urbanization, the continent-wide penetration of Web-enabled mobile phones, and the ubiquity of satellite TV in middle-class African homes means that a young filmmaker in Nairobi might feel a stronger creative kinship to his peers in Mexico City, Sao Paolo or Jakarta than to a cousin in rural Kenya — or to the so-called “calabash cinema” of past African greats.

Knol says that the young helmers he meets at the Talent Campus are asking the same questions as their American and European counterparts about crowdfunding, VOD platforms and cheaper, more nimble technologies.

“It makes it clear that there is a new generation that is working in a different way,” he says.