I just found out that my article was published in The Guardian today without the original first paragraph or the last three paragraphs, making this a very different piece than I had intended. I have pasted the original article below in its full glory, or you can read the published version here.
Keith Shiri, Tunde Kelani, and Kunle Afolayan at FESPACO 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00 By Bic Leu
From February 26 to March 5, 195 films were shown at the 22nd edition of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO), scattered across cinema halls and outdoor theaters in Burkina Faso’s capital city.
The event’s official newsletter declared an “opening under the sign of Panafricanism with a growing diversity of film productions from Africa and the Diaspora.” Yet despite this claim of unity, the Festival raised many debates regarding the definition of cinema and revealed divisions among countries with different colonial histories and the impact of those histories on the development of respective film industries. For example, official regulations excluded films not shot in 35 mm format from the main competition. Films shot in digital format were relegated to the TV & Video category, which included Nollywood’s only representatives – Mak Kusare’s Champions of our time (2010) and Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009). Ultimately, the lack of 35 mm projectors in most viewing centers rendered this rule moot, so films were screened in DVD format for Festival-goers.
The only movie by a Nigerian filmmaker to compete in the Feature Film category, Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless city (2010), was not shown to audiences. Several sources reported that the filmmaker was unexpectedly unable to attend and screen his film due to organizational mishap on the part of Festival managers. While this slight was unintentional, the incident did not help to ameliorate the rift between Nigerian filmmakers and their Francophone hosts. Nigeria’s already poor representation at FESPACO is disproportionate to the number of films that the country releases per year. (The National Film and Video Censors Board recorded 1,612 local movies submitted for classification in 2010).
Indeed, “African cinema” has been historically synonymous with Francophone African films, according to film curator and Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) jury member Keith Shiri. The primary source of funding for these movies is the French government, which allots an average budget of €500,000 to €2 million per film to its former colonies, thus allowing filmmakers to purchase and process pricey celluloid stock abroad at the cost of $400 to $500 per minute of film. These products are then distributed globally at film festivals and are seldom watched by their native audiences. Recent international attention has been directed at the robust volume of independently financed and lower budget productions from Nigeria and other Anglophone African countries. These films are shot on much cheaper digital formats and are enthusiastically consumed by Africans, thus challenging the traditional concept of “African cinema”.
Director Tunde Kelani confronted FESPACO’s definition of film at the African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of New Technologies workshop organized during the Festival by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) on February 27 and 28. While he is listed as a “video-maker” in the workshop program, Kelani has worked with a variety of audiovisual media over his 30-year career: super 8; super 16; 8 mm; 16 mm; 35 mm; all video formats; and now digital format. He emphasized the false contradictions between cinema and video, stating that new technology allows digital cameras to use film lenses and for some digital formats to have higher resolutions than 35 mm film. Kelani forecasted that celluloid production will disappear in the near future due to cheaper digital alternatives to shooting high-resolution film, such as the RED ONE camera.
Kelani is not alone. Chairman of the AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini privately conceded the need for FESPACO to adapt to technological changes: “They need to modify the rules to accommodate recent developments in technology. There shouldn’t be rules on making films in celluloid.”
Yet at the CODESRIA workshop, Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouedraogo countered Kelani and Husseini’s position by maintaining that a hierarchy exists between celluloid and video because “the beauty of the image is in the celluloid” and that video is unable to capture a wide range of contrast. He continued by asserting that movies made in Nigeria are more commerce than art, referring to Nollywood’s rapid production schedule as “business, not cinema”.
Director Kunle Afolayan tried to find common ground among these viewpoints at a Centre Culturel Français Ouagadougou screening of The Figurine on March 1. He emphasized his film’s self-sufficient financing and production structure as an advantage: “The film is self-funded and made entirely by Nigerians.” But he also stressed that collaboration between Anglophone and Francophone filmmakers is the key to take African cinema to the next level: “The camera knows no language…The sky is the limit if we come together as Africans.”
Afolayan’s appeal for intracontinental cooperation may be coming true: three films nominated for the Nigerian-produced AMAA also competed at FESPACO: A small town called Descent (South Africa, 2010), Zebu and the photo fish (Kenya, 2010), and Dina (Mozambique, 2010). In addition, FESPACO awarded Champions of our time the second prize in the TV & Video category, fueling expectations that more Nigerian directors will be recognized in future editions.
In the end, FESPACO 2011 was defined by a missed opportunity to unite filmmakers across the continent regardless of production format, budget, or colonial histories. Shiri observes an excitement surrounding the “new wave of directors from Nigeria who understand the importance of aesthetics, sound, pacing, and the strength of the story.” As Nigerian and other Anglophone cinema cultures gain global prominence, FESPACO’s continued alienation of them over politics of production will be detrimental to the Festival’s standing as the preeminent place on the continent to view and discuss African cinema.
Bic Leu is a US Fulbright Fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.
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