g The Film Panel Notetaker: 14th Annual New York African Film Festival panel notes

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

14th Annual New York African Film Festival panel notes

Last night, I attended a panel discussion of African filmmakers & scholars as part of the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York. What follows are my notes from that discussion.


14th Annual New York African Film Festival
“Celebrating 50 Years of Independence and Cinema”
Panel Discussion
April 9, 2007


Prior to the discussion, excerpts of the filmmakers’ films were screened. These included:

* Testament by John Akomfrah (JA)
* Max and Mona by Teddy Mattera (TM)
* A Love During the War and The Forgotten Man by Osvalde Lewat-Hellade (OLH)
* Menged by Daniel Taye Workou (TW)
* Colonial Misunderstanding and The Once and Fading King, by Jean-Marie Teno (JMT)

The panel discussion was then moderated by Mamadou Niang (MN), a journalist and television producer.

(MN) Is filmmaking in Africa a child of political independence? How do you encompass it?

(JA) African cinema is a product of post-colonialism in Africa. We’re seen as part of the de-colonization of the content. The first wave of filmmakers was geared in that direction. In the beginning, maverick voices tried to subvert dominant images from the 1940s on, largely set up to educate principally in West Africa. They tended to be concerned with health and education. In the 1950s, filmmakers tried something different, offering more of a range. Diversity then and now was set by rigid continental restraints. How to get funding and to reach audiences.

(MN) Are you satisfied with the way filmmaking is progressing in Africa?

(JMT) Hard to answer. Diversity has become more visible. Cinema tried to challenge representation before independence. There was a conflict between tradition and modernity. More documentaries are challenging many things in society. New technology offers more possibilities. We’re at a crossroads now. Political issues are not really being solved. These questions are still present.

(MN) Osvalde, what brings you personally to your subjects as a woman?

(OLH) Shocked by the question. Find it sexist. The facts draw her to her subjects. I don’t select topics because I’m a woman. I’m interested in documenting injustices. One film is about a man in prison for 33 years for committing a minor crime, and the other film is about the effect of rape on women, which is an injustice. As a filmmaker, what interests me is the life of the people around me. I select stories according to encounters I make and that call my attention. When I met that man and those women, I didn’t ask myself if I could make a film, but did regardless of difficulties filmmakers have in Africa.

(MN) Are there any difficulties encountered in making films in South Africa?

(TM) I’m very cautious about the idea that South Africa is a savior as it relates to cinema. We as filmmakers are not even born yet with respect with what happened in the gate opening of 1994 with the rest of the continent. There is lots of technical support and government intervention in cinema production. There is a clear coherent effort by individuals and organizations to make an imprint in retelling the visual history of our country. In 1890, one of the first of three cameras made in the world was in South Africa, but it was not in the hands of Africans. The Mandella honeymoon is over. Africans are looking at us as brothers and sisters, not as saviors.

(MN) Daniel, where does Ethiopia stand in African cinema?

(DTW) The first 35mm film to be autonomously produced in Ethiopia was in 1991. The idea to make films in Ethiopia came late probably because of Haile Selassie. He liked films and eventually created the Ethiopian Film Corporation mainly for documentaries. The socialist government after the revolution used documentaries to educate the masses. Filmmakers were sent to places like Russia to learn the craft. There have not been many films made since 1991, accept for beginning about three years ago.

(MN) There are about 700-1,000 films made a year in Nigeria under the term “Nollywood.” These films are very popular and accessible and are not on the par of artistic/independent films. How can we reverse this trend?

(JA) Not sure you want to reverse it. In fact, Africans were some of the first to be at the table of cinema. Images of Africans exist throughout the archives of cinema. In the 1970s & 1980s, curfews came in place. You couldn’t go out at night so cinemas closed down then. The idea if Nollywood is artistic or not is neither here nor there.

(MN) How valid is the academic argument that Northern financing is part of the films made in Africa?

(JMT) May be true in some cases, but we’ve gone beyond that. Everyone chooses to make films for his or her own personal reasons, despite where the money comes from.

(MN) Is there any pressure from combined sources of financing?

(JMT) The more you ask for, the more you have to compromise. It’s complex. Need to find a balance.

(OLH) Agrees with JMT that everyone works with his or her own concept, but may continue to still receive money. These questions come up at all festivals if funding is tied to demands. I’m a member of a fund in France for the past two years. To get funding, questions are answered about the quality of the film and what the filmmaker wants to say. Decisions are made by a vote. They never exert political pressure. More interested in commercialization.

Audience Questions & Answers

Q: Who were your influences as a woman filmmaker?
A: (OLH) haven’t been influenced by any particular woman filmmaker because my background is as a journalist.

Q: Is Nollywood the wave of the future?
A: (JA) don’t think so. Nollywood is not the only form of cinema in Nigeria. It was an outgrowth of something that was happening. There is a demand for popular films.
A: (JMT) Nollywood also started because there was no access to television, so they brought films directly to the people.

Q: How do you imagine your audiences when making films? Who are they aimed at?
A: (DTW) Not for either African or non-African audiences. Just an audience. It starts with the language. Comedy doesn’t always translate. Make a film to say something whether audience gets it or not.
A: (JMT) Tired of this question.
A: (TM) The audience chooses the film.

Q: Any structural problems in distributing films in Africa?
A: (JA) Structural problems have become more acute. Government is not allowed to disseminate films
A: (DTW) In Ethiopia, cinemas are packed with people to see any film that is available.

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