Berlin and its Political Stands: African Cinema Today

This 66th edition of the Berlinale did not focus so much on films as it did on issues, especially the issue of mass migration including Germany’s one million immigrants being welcomed by Angela Merkel. The sentiment of the Berlinale was expressed by Festival Director Dieter Kosslick in his introductory comment, “We are 90 million Germans. What are one million Syrians? We spent billions and billions to educate our kids, to teach them what happened in the Holocaust.” Nevertheless, the controversy throughout Germany and Europe continues to grow, as it does in the U.S. about what to do about the massive wave of migration, as if there were any other place the people, dispossessed and disposed of by their governments and the governments of the west to go.

Dealing with the plight of African and Syrian refugees, “Fire at Sea”/ “Fuocoammare” by Giovanni Rosi won the Golden Bear led by the jury president Meryl Streep. All North American rights have subsequently been acquired from its international sales agent, Doc & Film by Kino Lorber who plans an autumn release. “Gianfranco Rosi captured the hearts and minds of the Berlinale this year with what will become one of the essential films of our times,” said CEO Richard Lorber. The Italian distributor 01 Distribution profited from its Saturday night Golden Bear win as the Italian box office’s Sunday profits spiked +166%. Tuesday’s take was 40% up on Monday’s box office. By Wednesday the film had taken $169.5k (€154k) and the following weekend 01 almost doubled screens to 76. Imovision took Brazil, Caramel took Spain, Curzon took U.K. Rosi previously won the 2013 Venice Golden Lion for his documentary “Sacro Gra”.

“Fire at Sea” captures today’s Zeitgeist. Though it may not be a film of the highest merit when judged over time, it is the film with the highest contemporary-social-issue-political focus.

Its story is told from a superior point of view; what misery we see of the immigrants’ plight makes us sad and depressed – though not as much as the actual footage we see daily on the news. The only uplift we receive is to witness the acts of the good physician Pietro Bartolo. He not only cares for the island’s 4,000 inhabitants as they go about their daily business of fishing, keeping house, and going to school without much interaction with the invasion of refugees, but he also cares for the 400,000 immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, treating them or identifying them as already dead. As he said at his press conference, “This has become a dramatic problem, an epochal problem. I don’t think that a barbed-wire fence can stop these people. I don’t think there’s a person on earth who wants to leave his country if he isn’t forced to.”

A noble effort, the film in many ways misses the boat. Not to say that any other film was better (I did not see them all), but to make a point about the Berlinale itself as a festival, I note here the majority of other films in the Competition all had socially relevant foci and that is the point of the Berlinale. It is to its credit that it takes a stand and to its detriment that perhaps the films chosen do not attain cinematic stature internationally. The recent years’ Golden Bear winners were (in my opinion) certainly worthy with a couple of exceptions. “Caesar Must Die” a doc about Italian prisoners engaging in the production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and “Black Coal, Thin Ice” a Chinese hard-boiled detective saga were both quickly forgotten.

Memorable winners worth noting were in 2011 with Iran’s “ Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/ “A Separation”, Romania’s 2013 “ Poziţia Copilului”/ “Child‘s Pose” and again from Iran in 2015, Jafar Panahi’s “ Taxi”.

Looking at the other films in Competition this year, Mohamed Ben Attia’s “Hedi”(Isa: The Match Factory, sold to date to Austria’s Polyfilm, Germany’s Pandora, Norway’s Mer Film, Switzerland ’s Cineworx, Taiwan’s Maison Motion) deals with a quiet man’s personal struggle for freedom from the constraints of his Tunisian society; Ivo M. Ferreira’s “Letters from War” (Isa: The Match Factory) deals with the final years of the Angolan War of Independence against Portugal in 1961-74; Danis Tanovic deals with the more recent Bosnian War as a Frenchman sits in his hotel room while a World War I Commemoration takes place in Sarajevo in “Death in Sarajevo” (Isa: The Match Factory); protests against the Nazi regime are the subject of “Alone in Berlin” (Isa: Cornerstone, the new sales company of Alison Thompson and Mark Gooder, sold to Altitude for U.K., Pathe for France. X Film, the producer keeps German rights) by Vincent Perez; in Rafi Pitts’ “Soy Nero”( Isa: The Match Factory, sold to date to Neue Visionen for Germany, Sophie Dulac Distribution for France, Ama Films for Greece, Bomba Films for Poland, Filmarti for Turkey,MegaCom for Serbia and Montenegro, Moving Turtle for Lebanon, trigon-film for Switzerland) about a 19-year-old Mexican boy dreaming of immigrating north to the U.S. who takes the route of joining the U.S. Army to fight in the Middle East in order to get his “green card”. The Philippine Revolution against Spanish Colonization is treated in a 482 minute epic “ A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” (Isa: Films Boutique) by Lav Diaz. In “United States of Love” (Isa: Films New Europe sold to Imovision for Brazil and Angel for Denmark), four women share the urge to change their lives in 1990, immediately after the fall of Communism. All of these films are dealing with issues of gaining freedom today. “Being 17”(Isa: Elle Driver sold Belgium to Lumière, Brazil to F ênix, France to Wild Bunch, Serbia to McF Megacom, Switzerland to Frenetic) by Andre Techine also deals with adolescents growing up gay in a working-class neighborhood in France, another current human rights issue.

These film choices remind us that the Berlinale itself was founded in 1950 during the Cold War as West Berlin’s way of confronting East Berlin’s imprisonment of its people by flaunting its own freedom, a truly Berlin way of life which still today animates its spirit of freedom. This casts a certain character upon the films chosen by the Berlinale selection committee to this day.

A political tone of the festival was also echoed by the pronouncement “We are all Africans really” spoken by Meryl Streep when she was questioned about why the Berlin Film Festival had appointed an all-white jury (not that she was responsible for choosing the jury).

Meryl Streep’s rather blithe comment, to quote Lindiwe Dovey in The Guardian , “plunged the actress into a debate about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. At best, Streep’s comment was an attempt to show solidarity. But what she unwittingly also underlined was the absence of Africans and African filmmaking in mainstream cinema. If we really are all Africans, and if we are going to take black filmmaking more seriously, why are we not watching African films?” Again, Streep is not responsible for the Berlinale’s selection either.

Only five African films are being shown at this year's festival and they are not all sub-Saharan African, that is to say “black”, but are also North African -- that is to say of the Mena region or Arab. These are two very different aspects of the giant continent called Africa. We are seeing many films from the Mena, that is Arab and North African regions this year.

In an attempt to find answers to this question of why we are not seeing more “black” films, we attended the Berlinale World Cinema Fund’s “Africa Day”. This one-off, and therefore insufficient, day was dedicated to discussing the memory, present and future of African films. Insufficient for finding answers and for creating any call for action, the day was, nonetheless, important and for that we all should thank the German Federal Cultural Foundation for providing the funds which guarantee the existence of the World Cinema Fund until at least 2018 and to the German Foreign Office, which substantially raised its level of support allowing the Wcf additional discretion in its actions.

The presentation by Nigerian film critic Didi Anni Cheeka was a fascinating exposé of what has happened to the “archives” of Nigerian cinema. The 60s to the 80s’ post-colonial cinema is not discussed today at all and Cheeka has searched for those filmmakers, called “The Seven Ups” who worked along with such filmmakers as Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. The Ministry of Information in Nigeria gave him permission to organize the films of the 60s which were lost during the Civil War in a collective amnesia. In the process, he discovered a room closed, locked and forgotten in the 1960s at the end of the independent movements throughout Africa, a room containing movie machines and more than 2,000 cans of films laying around like dusty dead bodies. This and other sad cases have revealed that in fact, there are no archives of African cinema at all.

But even the later Nollywood producers do not have copies of their films. Memories of what Africa looked like are lost along with the artistic efforts of its cineastes. Silence has been instilled by the governments of today as well.

Cinema as culture does not really exist in Africa. To create awareness takes education, leisure, city life and a cultural and cinema community nourishing one another. More than production funds, awareness needs the support of people with ideas.

Cheeka also stated, "We have the strange situation that new cineplexes are coming up every day, but they only show Hollywood movies. It's a common problem all over Africa: High quality movies from the continent hardly find an audience or even a place to be shown. Without a market in sight, few high-quality movies are shot. Only so-called ‘Nollywood movies’, mostly produced in Nigeria in just a few days or weeks, are thriving. Nigeria's movie industry earns around Us $250 million from Nollywood movies. This is the first time an economy has been established around the notion of film. In 1999 the first Nollywood delegaton came to Sithengi, the South African Film Market and they took over. Last year in Nigeria, many layers of Nollywood were apparent; the usual low budget exploitation or dramatic movie was giving space to other kinds of film. This opens the possibility of further discussion of film economy in all Africa, from Algeria to South Africa.

Pedro Pimento, Director of the Durban International Film Festival, gave the keynote address analyzing the lack of African film and the lack of distribution for what few African films there are. This was the high point of the day as he was heard loud and clear, at least by me, as he was articulate and to the point.

Pedro Pimenta is a filmmaker and producer from Mozambique. He produced the 1997 film "Fools", the first feature film shot by a black South African, Ramadan Suleman, and the same year "Africa Dreaming" a chronicle of Africa in six acts, with the common theme the love. Pimenta is also "foreign corresponding member" of the "Association of Real Cinema" the international meeting of documentary films held at the Pompidou Center in Paris created in 1978 which invites the public and professionals to discover film auteurs. The producer-director is also the founder and director of the documentary film festival "Dockanema" in Maputo, Mozambique. The first edition was held in September 2006 with support from the Mozambican Ebano Multimedia, in association with Amocine (Mozambican Association of Filmmakers).

According to Pimenta, "the documentary is an observation and testimony which brings the spectator something which otherwise would be merely read as news and quickly forgotten. Directed by great filmmakers, it can be a work of art; made by an amateur holding a small hand-held camera, it is a daily familiar record of an historic moment. The documentary brings us closer to the great achievements of the better side of humanity even as it brings us the violent scourge of today's world. It thus gives us the opportunity to replace prejudice by solidly based judgments and to take conscious positions."

Pedro Pimenta started his movie career with the National film Institute of Mozambique in 1977. Since then, he has produced and co-produced numerous short fiction, documentaries and feature movies in his country as well as in other African nations.

Between 1997 and 2003 Pedro was the chief Technical Adviser of the Unesco Zimbabwe Film and Video Training Project for Southern Africa in Harare. As part of his function, he conceived and managed various training programs. He is one of the founders of Avea (Audio Visual Entrepreneurs of Africa) which runs an annual training program for professional producers in Southern Africa. Until December 2005, Pedro was a member of the Prince Claus Fund Awards Committee of the Netherlands.

He presented practical and pragmatic steps for a concrete approach to invigorate African Cinema.

First of all, there is no case for Africa as a country. It is too diverse and too vast. Knowing the context(s) of film, there is a solution. However, there is a total lack of reliable data vis á vis Africa, just as there has been a lack of data for the case of women in film until the past couple of years. A structure as a way to access information must be built. Experience has been accumulated for what works and what does not work in changing contexts; there are constant paradigm shifts; there is “generational regeneration” in content every few years; but all facts are anecdotal and not data oriented.

And there is the traditional value chain of cinema going like this:

The money follows from production costs to recoupment through distribution and it should be put back into film education along with production. The weakest point in the chain is exhibition.

Currently there is good energy, but there is no system. There are two recognized international film festivals and Mogadishu might be a third festival but it will take four to five years. There were attempts to create Pan African film distribution utopias, but they failed. Neither the British nor the French ever involved themselves in distribution systems and the models died.

From the mid 80s to 2000 the Imf World Bank’s involvement in Africa was built on a model of all nations feeding off of Mother Africa like a litter of trucks feeding off the oil tank that was Africa.

Today, the need to control distribution is apparent and it can generate money, but governments have made it clear that culture today is a “negative priority”. International corporations serve as African nations’ only means of survival.

While commercial distribution models have failed, the number of film festivals has increased. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, only two have no film festival. From 1980 to 2000 there were only two countries with festivals. Plus there is the current digital revolution which points to new directions one can go.

If any form of distribution reaches a critical mass like that of Nollywood, the governments can think critically about its policies. Keep an eye on the cinemas opening in Ethiopia which are based on local demands for local films. Ethiopia is currently producing 200 films per year. Uganda has informal screening spaces located all over the capital city. Pathé looks like it might have a shot in Francophone Africa. These examples all go to show there is a small cultural economy through cinema.

Morocco and Mauritius have local incentives to encourage local production.

But overall, exhibition is the weakest link in the value chain shown above.

In 2016 we see Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Iroko TV/ Buni. We see TV, African Films and TV, Vidi, On Tap TV etc.

However, I am of the belief that VOD is not the answer for Africa and African cinema. A minority of so-called middle class Africans, who do not identify or show interest for African films will have access. The majority of Africans (the market) are left on the sideline (once again) and are not really considered in any strategy.

But with 1.4 billion people, 60% of whom live in urban settings and with a majority of young people, young consumers – one out of three being “middle class”, there is a demand for entertainment. But we need to find the reality and economy of Our Cinema.

There is a demand for a mirror of oneself. The origin of an audience is Our Grandmother. What does she say about our ideas? She was the storyteller who passed our values on to this new generation. How can our creative cinema advance if we do not head this real mirror.

Here are the transversal issues:

1. Training vs. Education. There are many training initiatives in Africa, but what of film education? To train an audience, to train storytellers rather than to train support for outside production companies shooting in Africa is imperative.

2. Relevance of data. Data is limited to say the least.

3. Role of the producer in Africa’s content and support strategies.

4. Role of film festivals. By default they are the exhibitor of African content throughout Europe and they are part of a larger year-round circuit supporting African films for African audiences.

5. European support models only create two to three projects a year. This includes Hubert Bals Fund of Netherlands, Cinema du Monde of France, World Cinema Fund of Germany and Acp of the European Market.

We need new ways and a new system of support from Europe that is matched by support from Africa. Any system based on support however is not adequate.

“Screen space” is not necessarily a theater. It can be universities, museums; it might be similar to the recent attempts in Cuba of “salon cinemas” which were separate rooms in restaurants and hair salons.

Another model might be Argentina’s building of 45 digital cinemas throughout Latin America for Latin American content or the recent creation of Retina Latina, a free online service of Latin American films for Latin America.

The Market exists. There is a lot of money in Africa. The problem is that the money's offices are in London.

Pimento’s response when I sent him Meryl Streep’s comment as it was reported in The Guardian follows.

“Interesting but what bothers me really is the fact that we never really critically talk about quality (or not) of African films and also the belief that things will happen out of some divine intervention and not by triggering purposeful market dynamics .

I find also that using Ms. Streep’s comment as a way to reach some visibility does not necessarily reflect any intellectual honesty… it’s just a quick expedient for a sector of dogmatic- bordering-on-racism African filmmakers who claim the rest of the world needs to provide solutions to their problems/ frustrations/ obstacles .....

There are many less visible examples of positive African people and initiatives driven by the notion that our destiny is in our hands really and not in the hands of any international cooperation/ aid/ humanitarian system."
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