In a panel discussion provocatively entitled “Content Scramble for Africa,” guests at the Cannes Film Market’s Cannes Docs sidebar were invited to interrogate the sustainability of current forms of collaboration between the African continent and the Global North in documentary filmmaking.

Moderated by IDFA programmer Sarah Dawson, the panel included Laurent Bitty, president of Africadoc-Côte d’Ivoire, Senegalese director and producer Angèle Diabang (“Un air de Kora,” “Le Monde en Face”), Christilla Huillard-Kann, co-founder of Paris-based indie film production company Elda Productions, and Mohamed Saïd Ouma, head of DocA (Documentary Africa), a film fund dedicated to documentary film.

In Africa, like elsewhere, rapid digitization and growth in online media consumption is changing the documentary landscape, with a renewed and sudden interest from global streaming players in this vast market.

According to figures cited by Dawson, the number of SVOD users in Africa is expected to reach 5 million by the end of this year with Netflix in the lead, even though its market share is expected to decline as it competes with both international and domestic streamers.

However, co-creation and collaboration with the Global North remains skewed in favor of one party, according to Ouma.

“The one with the deepest pockets makes the biggest decisions,” he said, adding that “the marginalization of our voices continues as the influence of international content on the global market grows: we are creating a tiny window for our African perspectives,” he went on, voicing concern about content standardization: “The vast majority of non-fiction is about crime series; there’s very little space for creative docs.”

While there was consensus around the table that the streamers’ scramble for Africa reflects nothing more than a strategy to develop new markets, it is up to African producers and filmmakers to assert themselves when entering deals, said Diabang.

“It’s a huge audience – 54 countries – and [the streamers] can break the language barrier. It is up to us to take the opportunity but, at the same time, impose our conditions: they need us more than we need them. We, producers, need to get together, and set salary scales when dealing with them.”

More than half the projects that seek DocA funding each year fail because they are co-productions where African producers are minority stakeholders, which makes them ineligible, said Ouma.

“We have to work on that and find a new way to co-create and co-produce,” said Huillard-Kann. “There are good producers in Africa, but there aren’t enough, and the countries don’t all have the same opportunities, nor do they all have films commissions. [This kind of] co-production is interesting for both Europeans and Africans, it allows us to share culture.”

As an example, she cited one of her recent co-productions, “No U-Turn,” Nigerian director Ike Nnaebue’s debut documentary feature. Part of the Generation Africa project, a series of 25 short, medium and feature-length documentaries from 16 African countries centering on youth and migration, the film premiered at this year’s Berlinale.

“The Nigerian executive producer received support from the World Cinema Fund, and managed the African expenses, while on the French side, we went looking for other funds and public support in Europe. But it requires time to learn how to work together without imposing one way or the other. This is not simple. For example, ‘No U-Turn’ was edited in France in the end because it was too complicated in Nigeria,” said Huillard-Kann.

Distributors and sales agents should also be involved in the process early on, she added. “You need to think about your strategy of distribution: not just make a local story but be sure the film will travel – they know the market and can help you have a better idea of the audience you reach.”

Rounding up the panel, Bitty explained how his fest mixes doc with popular fiction, to develop and grow the local audience’s appetite for doc. “But you have to be honest, he said. “When you make a film you hope it will be in A-list festivals, it’s not necessarily aimed at your own community. We need to reverse that: think about the local audience first and then try to export the film.”

Curated by DAE (the Documentary Association of Europe) in cooperation with DocA, the talk was one of nearly a dozen panels organized as part of the Cannes Film Market’s Cannes Docs sidebar that ran May 17 through May 25.

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Ike Nnaebue Cannes Docs