Emerging Voices — The Landscape of Independent Film in Africa 

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What is African cinema and what characterizes it? This question seems to have thousands of possible answers. Due to the size of the country, it seems difficult to speak of „one African cinema“. To get us an insight into Africa’s world of film, we got the chance to talk with Machérie Ekwa Bahango. A young Congolese filmmaker — whose first film Maki’la premiered at the Berlinale in 2018. First studying law, Bahango transitioned to the cinema first in 2014, working as a production manager and later as a translator and writer for several productions. Maki’la is considered her directorial debut. Although Bahango could generate attention with her film, which also got awarded with the Golden Screen Award at the Black Screen Film Festival in 2018, she herself is not really sure whether she can be described as a part of the film industry. In her words:

„I don’t even know if I’m part of an industry, I’m still fighting to make my films exist, to produce them…I’ll talk about the industry when I’ll be very active. However, as I said, for me, there isn’t one African cinema, but many. Africa is 54 countries with thousands of different cultures.“

— Machérie Ekwa Bahango

It can be said that the film industry sector in Africa — apart from Nollywood productions based in Nigeria— is largely not seizing the potential. Especially due to the unstable economy of the continent as well as lack of funding, making it hard for filmmakers realizing their films. Additionally, Africa’s landscape of film has to be viewed from different perspectives due to its size also seems not irrelevant as Bahango is mentioning. She says that „every African country has its own cinema and its own way of doing things. Ivorian cinema is different from Nigerian, Senegalese, Malian or Congolese cinema. There isn’t one cinema for all of Africa.“

The continent’s film industry — in its diversity of narrations — is characterized by its history, evolving opportunities but also existential challenges. Whether we talk about the so-called Nollywood productions — nowadays the world’s second biggest film industry — or independent cinema trying to be recognized and ongoing. Let’s take a brief look at the actual state of cinema in Africa as well as its past.

During Colonialism

After cinema developed in France in 1895, it also got its place in Africa. But it increasingly remained under the influence of European colonialism and the consequences of post-colonialism continued to shape its development. Until independence, films in Africa were largely shot, distributed and financed by Europeans and Americans. This meant that former colonies had no chance of cinematic independence and France’s paternalistic cultural policy made it difficult for Africans to gain access to jobs such as cinematographer or editor. The depiction of African people, often portrayed in an outlandish and exotic way by Western filmmakers, suffered immensely during the colonial era. It was only in the 60’s after independence that — in many African countries — an indigenous and independent industry began to emerge.

1950’s, photo from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, RMCA Tervuren ©

Cinema Development back in History

One of the most relevant filmmakers for African cinema at the time of the 60s was the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is also known as the father of African cinema. His first feature film La Noire de…, which was released in 1966 and is considered the first African film, attracted big noticeable attention. According to the Cannes Film Festival, his film Borom Sarret (1963) would reflect the emergence of African cinema. Other relevant directors at the time were Youssef Chanine from Egypt or Idrissa Ouedraogo from Burkina Faso. At that time, both national and cultural identity were of central importance. Increasingly, the film industry grew within various countries such as Tunisia and Algeria, with the Egyptian film industry being one of the oldest and most prolific on the continent. But in the 1980s, however, films for a wider audience became increasingly important, making independent productions less relevant.

Ousmane Sembène on the set of Xala, released in 1974, photo from franceinfo: culture ©

Nigeria, in particular, in the 90’s was able to build up a robust film industry. Back then the filmmaker Okechukwu Oguejiofor produced a film called Living in Bondage with little money. This thriller was to become the start of the Nollywood series. These were considered commercial approached productions leading to a main focus on mass production by reducing production costs. With the help of his friends and hand-held video cameras, Oguejiofor invented a form of cinema, which would later bring huge attention to Nigeria’s film industry. With around 2500 films per year, it is considered one of the world’s largest film industries.

The Reshape in Political Perspectives

When we take a look at the cinema in Africa, we cannot consider its development in isolation from its colonial past. Independent filmmakers initially saw it as their responsibility to depict the reality of people’s life in the various countries of Africa and to decolonize the view of the country. Due to this, making films was always closely interwoven with being political. This set it apart from commercial Hollywood productions and European art films. In the 80s in particular, the need in searching for authenticity grew enormously. Due to neo-colonial influences, filmmakers wanted to portray Africa without being shown only as a culture that had emerged from the colonial powers. For many filmmakers, making films was a political instrument to transform and to rebuild the image of Africa and Africans.

Today, the focus is not necessarily on stories and narratives shaped by neo-colonialism. Increasingly, socially critical themes like equal rights or gender — as well as different genres — are finding its place in today’s film world. As Machérie Ekwa Bahango is telling us, the impression of Africa would get quickly generalized.

Still from Maki’la (2018), directed by 
Machérie Ekwa Bahango, 
photo from Berlinale Talents ©

„You will see that there’s something for everyone. Those who make films about the past, the present and even the future, from social problems and even comedy or science fiction… There’s no shortage of subjects.“

— Machérie Ekwa Bahango

As everywhere else, many filmmakers share the need to reflect their lives — with all its realities and actualities — within films. And for that they also try to seize opportunities through new platforms and technologies.

Conditions and Challenges

Even if there are different difficulties realizing films, UNESCO points out, there are aspects that raise our hope for the industry. Apart from Nollywood productions, which achieve a very high success rate, there are many young filmmakers who want to move people with their stories. Especially, technological progress leads to more chances for people wanting to create films. New technologies, the possibility of transmitting films online (social media, local video services) and directly to consumers, are creating new economies. Generations of new filmmakers in Kenya or Rwanda, for example, see this as an opportunity to live from online income via streams.

But it can be said that the film industry in Africa is still very codependent and limited due to its historical background and still there are many challenges to deal with. Especially, a lack of financial support leads to many hurdles creating films as Machérie Ekwa Bahango is telling us.

„In my country we don’t have support. Sometimes filmmakers can find someone to give them money but sometimes it is not enough for making a film.“

— Machérie Ekwa Bahango

Particularly for young and new filmmakers it is hard to make a lasting impression in the film world. In our interview Bahango points out that this is why film festivals can especially have a great impact on upcoming filmmakers. They can provide them a platform and access to a film related network. For her, the premiere of her first film Maki’la was a big step within the film industry.

Director Machérie Ekwa Bahango at the premiere of her film Maki’la,
photo from Berlinale Archive ©

„Everything I have in my career was because my film was shown at a big festival. It made me known and my film too. I think it is very important to be part of that.“

— Machérie Ekwa Bahango

Looking Forward

Africa is showing a wide spectrum in its size and narrations. Narrations that can last as authentic and break down internalized stereotypes. It can by no means be generalized. There are many filmmakers who want to bring their stories of today’s world to the outside world, capable of reaching international audiences. This is clearly not the end of the road when it comes to the world of film in Africa and in particular, African independent film. But most definitely this continent’s industry holds many prospects for the future as well as giving the ability to redefine narratives and its representation.