The dearth of African contenders in the main competition at this year’s Berlinale might come as no surprise to the continent’s perennially disappointed filmmakers. One could argue — not unfairly — that Africa is still underrepresented at the world’s top film festivals.
But you wouldn’t have to look hard to find emerging African voices in festival strands like Berlin’s Panorama, Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema, or Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. That many of these films are from first- and second-time directors bodes well for a continent still grappling to reclaim its own narrative.
Three years after Senegal’s Alain Gomis won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear for his Kinshasa-set drama “Félicité,” other kudos for African filmmakers have followed. The past 12 months alone have seen Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary “Talking About Trees” scoop a pair of prizes in last year’s Berlinale; Sudan’s Amjad Abu Alala win the award for debut feature in Venice with “You Will Die at Twenty”; and French-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s debut “Atlantics” take the Grand Prix in Cannes.
Savvy programming has undoubtedly played a part in bringing more African films to festival audiences, but no less significant is the push in Hollywood and other industries for more diverse representation. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, there’s a greater appetite than ever before to see black stories depicted on screen.
For Diop, who conceived “Atlantics” a decade ago, that shift was instrumental in helping launch her Oscar-shortlisted movie into the public eye. “When I started to write the film, the audience that exists now was not there yet,” she says. “From the moment I began to think about the film until [its release], this audience emerged. It’s incredible.”
Diop’s groundbreaking film, which marked the first time a black woman director competed for the Palme d’Or, points to another trend buffeting African filmmakers: The global ambitions of streaming services like Netflix, which released “Atlantics” worldwide last year. Along with the global rollout this month of its first African original, South African spy drama “Queen Sono,” the streamer has been quietly expanding its library of African titles.
While such acquisitions are typical of the streaming giant’s strategy to boost its global subscriber base through local content, the knock-on effect has been to expose viewers around the world to a greater range of storytelling, opening doors for films from long-underrepresented regions to emerge. “That says something about the position we’re in right now, where maybe the prevalence of streaming has, in an unexpected way, started to retrain an audience and broaden an audience,” says Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions at XYZ Films.
The Los Angeles-based production, sales and management outfit is developing several properties with African partners based on African IP. “The last couple of years have been an education process for a lot of people involved, in terms of where you can make good content locally, who the good partners are, how the systems work,” says Brown. “People want to see different stories, for sure. It’s a question of where in the chain you can monetize interest. That’s the whole trick.”
Industry players seem determined to identify potential breakout stars. A prime example would be Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, who’s been attached to a host of studio projects since her lesbian romance drama “Rafiki” bowed in Un Certain Regard. Among them are the JuVee Prods. and Amazon series “Wild Seed,” which Kahiu is co-writing with Nigerian novelist Nnedi Okorafor—an award-winning sci-fi writer who’s also consulting on an HBO adaptation of her post-apocalyptic novel “Who Fears Death,” from executive producer and “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin.
If not quite an arms race just yet, Hollywood competitors are circling African talent. CAA has tasked an agent with scouting fresh faces from the continent; the agency’s recent signings include Ghanaian director Nicole Amarteifio and Nigerian media mogul Mo Abudu. WME’s clients include South Africans Nosipho Dumisa (SXSW player “Number 37”), who’s directing the upcoming Netflix teen series “Blood & Water,” and Michael Matthews (“Five Fingers for Marseilles,” which unpooled in Toronto), the director of Paramount’s post-apocalyptic comedy “Monster Problems.”
For some observers, the rest of the world is simply waking up to what has long been obvious. “The problem was never around a shortage of stories, or a shortage of talent,” says producer Cait Pansegrouw of Urucu Media. “It was more around the lack of producers on the continent who understood international financing, and how to launch filmmakers into the world cinema space.”
That’s starting to change. Three years after Pansegrouw and Urucu co-founder Elias Ribeiro arrived in Berlin with John Trengove’s Oscar-shortlisted LGBTQ drama “The Wound,” Urucu — fresh off a Sundance triumph with Lesotho director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” — will hit the EFM Co-Production Market with Trengove’s latest film, “A Shadow Creeps in Silver Trees.” South Africa’s Big World Cinema was also selected as one of the EFM’s five companies in focus.
“You can feel it. It’s tangible. The market is ravenous for African content,” says Pansegrouw. While African filmmakers still fight against the current of Western tropes, battling the expectations of audiences and financiers alike, the tide is shifting. “We’re starting to care less about validation, and more about doing things on our own terms.”