'Cinema of crumbs'

All protocols observed—this worn phrase was not uttered once during the African Film Summit last week, not even by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, who has on more than one occasion in the past relied on this practical and time-saving customary greeting. Protocol?

Not at this summit. What was certainly in abundance was a smorgasbord of African culture and presentations peppered with African proverbs.

The summit ended with a resolution calling for the establishment of an African Audiovisual and Cinema Commission as well as a fund to promote the cinema industry and television in Africa.

The event was opened by Jordan. Also present were Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture Ntombazana Botha, Kenya’s Deputy Minister of Information Koigi wa Mwere, filmmaking legends and pioneers of African cinema Sarah Maldoror, Safi Faye, Haile Gerima, Med Hondo and Souleyman Cissé, politicians, senior government officials, academics, students and industry organisations.

This call for the establishment of an African Audiovisual and Cinema Commission (AACC) follows a decision taken by the African Union in 2003.

Advocate Bience Gawanas, commissioner for social and cultural affairs in the AU, said “The summit is an opportunity for film practitioners and relevant institutions to begin working towards the launching of the Pan African Audio Visual Commission.”

The gathering was convened after two years of hard work and a request from filmmakers at Africa’s biggest film festival, Fespaco, in Ouagadougou in 2003. It is an initiative of the Department of Arts and Culture, the National Film and Video Foundation, in association with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers.

Delegates to the summit heard presentations from eminent scholars on the historical challenges and successes of African cinema. Presentations highlighted the need for more direct investment from Africans into the audiovisual industry in Africa. Filmmakers were described as “beggars, forced to go outside Africa for help”.

“We hope this initiative will assist in bringing African filmmakers together to engage towards the development of a common policy for film and towards crafting a strategy that will inform Nepad and the African Union,” commented Jordan, who confirmed the view of the South African government on the importance of cultural industries in economic growth, a key component of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa.

It is anticipated that the establishment of the commission will change this pattern of dependency on foreign financing of African films. The involvement of African governments in promoting policies for the development of cultural industries in their respective countries will go a long way towards providing the necessary institutional setting for the establishment of the commission. Delegates debated what they considered to be the role of the AU and Nepad in the development of Africa’s audiovisual industries and an assessment of the desirability and necessity of Pan African instruments that can facilitate development.

The representative of the AU Commission, Kamel Esseghairi, pointed out that it was important to decide how the filmmakers wanted the commission to be structured and the composition of its membership. This is what the AU was asking the summit to identify, and to assist in drawing up a charter for the establishment of the commission. This commission should be established as a specialised agency of the AU, which brings with it the financial and institutional support of the AU. The future shape, role and functioning of the commission would be determined by resolutions taken at the summit.

A second major topic was the question of unity among filmmakers and the filmmaking industry and professional organisations. Delegates heard from veteran filmmakers about the need for an effective federation to represent the interests of the sector and to facilitate unity among filmmakers. Ethiopian filmmaker and Pan African Federation of Filmmakers founding member Abdulkadir Ahmed Said presented a paper on the history, challenges and future of Pan African filmmakers’ organisations and associations. As a counterpoint, the Kenyan deputy minister of information and communication said filmmakers should not seek unity like that of politicians, “otherwise everyone wants to become president of Africa”.

Panelists shared examples of the few successful interventions in countries such as Ghana, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria. They also commented on the major strides African women filmmakers were making.

The causes of the failures of many state support initiatives were analysed. Factors identified as affecting the development of the cinema in Africa included structural adjustment and the lack of state support for industry development. Success stories such as Morocco and South Africa, where there has been a surge of film production, were assessed and opinions diverged widely on the sustainability of these achievements.

“With the exception of Burkina Faso, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco and a few other countries, in most cases, African filmmakers operate within contexts devoid of clearly articulated and systematically implemented state policies on culture and lack of private sector participation in cultural production and promotion,” said Mbye Cham, associate professor of African Studies at Howard University. He quotes Ousmane Sembene, “the elder of elders of African cinema”, to show that while there is still much to do and that only small victories have been won, “peu et beaucoup [not much but still a lot], there is much hope and optimism that a new generation of determined and technically superb filmmakers are building on the ground cleared by the pioneers and contributing toward the move away from ‘megotage’ [a cinema of crumbs/leftovers] to le vrai cinema africain [true African cinema].”

The debates showed that there is an optimism that this state of affairs can be reversed through greater unity, a more focused set of objectives and the right political and private sector support. The commission will serve as the institutional framework for developing cinema and audiovisual policy and harmonising legislative and regulatory instruments in member states of the AU. This will provide legal certainty and encourage the much-needed investment into infrastructure, market development, training and skills development and an increase in inter-African co-productions.

One key topic was how broadcasters can change the state of African cinema and the development of African audiovisual industries. A special focus on the role of broadcasters in the development of local content looked at various examples of successful implementation of cultural policies. The summit called for increases in the local content quotas for television programmes.

Against all odds a final draft, the Tshwane Declaration, was prepared for presentation to the final plenary, and delegates will have an opportunity to submit recommendations on the final resolutions. The summit closed on an upbeat note despite the obvious uncertainties about what the summit had achieved. “What has come to light is the dynamics of cultural diversity of Africans, with personalities included. Some of us have been forced into realising the value of collective security in our efforts,” said South African filmmaker Teddy Materra.

With the encouraging support from politicians, providing solid evidence of the political will behind such a vital initiative, and genuine unity among African filmmakers, the future for Africa’s film and audiovisual industry has never looked better.The hosting of the African film summit was a bold and visionary step that will leave a legacy not only for the host country but for filmmakers across the continent.

Dimitri Martinis is a former head of policy for the NFVF and current CEO of MCM digital media

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