Reference Entry

Cinema, African

Elizabeth Heath

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Cinema, African

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According to popular legend, cinema was first introduced to Africa in 1896, after a stolen bioscope mysteriously made its way to Cape Town, South Africa. For the next several decades colonial governments effectively delayed the development of an African film industry, but since independence African film directors have struggled to create a viable cinema of their own. Despite ongoing production and distribution problems, they have largely succeeded; African cinema is now internationally recognized. African filmmakers now aspire to reach broader audiences in Africa itself. Colonial-Era Cinema Although Europeans and Americans started to make films in Africa soon after the medium was invented in the 1890s, Africa’s colonial regimes restricted Africans’ exposure to film and film production until the late 1950s. In British colonies as well as the Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), for example, Africans were forbidden to watch European and American movies. French and Belgian colonial governments controlled the content of all films produced within their borders, and Africans were frequently forbidden from working on film productions. These restrictions reflected the colonial powers’ concern about the influence of the cinematic medium on the African population. They assumed that Africans were incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction and would therefore take too seriously films that depicted Europeans and Americans unfavorably. They also feared the possible dissemination of subversive or anticolonial messages through film. Despite these restrictions, some Africans still managed to learn about film and filmmaking. Primarily, they took advantage of colonial efforts to use film as an educational tool. In Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), for example, the Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment (BECE) was devoted to producing films on hygiene, improved farming methods, and African folktales. Launched in 1935 and sponsored by the colonial office of the British Film Institute, the BECE made films in a variety of East African languages and intended for African audiences. The BECE periodically employed Africans to perform menial tasks, and its supervisor Leslie Alan Notcutt urged that similar cinema projects, also employing Africans, be established throughout British Africa. The subsequent establishments of colonial film units throughout the British colonies provided Africans with one way to acquire filmmaking skills. In the Belgian Congo a similar opportunity emerged for Africans interested in film. In the 1940s the colonial government’s Film and Photo Bureau made educational and propaganda films specifically for the African population. In order to reduce costs the bureau employed African workers who were taught the basics of film production. In addition, Africans could acquire cinematic skills at the Congolese Center for Catholic Action Cinema (CCCAC) in Léopoldville (present-day Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo) or Africa Films in Kivu, both of which were run by Catholic priests. The two companies’ films—such as the CCCAC’s series Les Palabres de Mboloko, starring an animated antelope—aimed to teach African audiences religious virtues. Both companies offered Africans an opportunity to learn cinematic techniques, but, as in the other colonial experiments, the content and format of the films produced by these groups were severely restricted by the colonial administration. In the French colonies, France’s goal of assimilating colonial subjects into French culture provided some aspiring African film directors opportunities to attend film school abroad. One of the first was Senegalese Paulin Vieyra, who graduated from the prestigious l’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris in 1955. Vieyra later became a well-known film critic and historian. But he and other early Francophone African filmmakers were not permitted to return to Africa to make films. France’s 1934 Laval Decree placed strict controls on any filmmaking in its colonies and denied African directors filming permits altogether. By the late 1950s a number of Africans had acquired filmmaking skills, but they still had little autonomy. Instead, African directors were forced to comply with the paternalistic restrictions established by the colonies’ production centers, which typically allowed them only to make educational films. Not until decolonization could African film directors begin building a film industry of their own. Francophone Film Production and the FEPACI After independence, film directors in the former French colonies took the lead in African cinema for a number of reasons. Francophone Africa had the largest number of film directors, many of whom had acquired sophisticated techniques from their studies abroad. Consequently, they were best equipped to produce films capable of competing with American and European films for the attention of African audiences. In addition, France offered its former colonies financial and technical support for film production through institutions such as the Consortium audiovisuel international (CAI) and Bureau du cinéma. The first to take advantage of such assistance was Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, whose 1963 Borom Sarret is now considered by many historians to be the first African film. During the early years of independence Francophone film directors such as Ousmane Sembène, Moustapha Alassane, Gaston Kaboré, Med Hondo, and Timité Bassori not only produced films but also became advocates for African cinema. They identified and denounced the barriers to African film production, such as the European and American distributors’ monopoly over African movie theaters (which enabled them to flood the market with foreign films); the lack of production facilities in Africa; and censorship by African governments. In 1969 Francophone directors initiated the founding of the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes (FEPACI), an organization that fought for the political, cultural, and economic liberation of African film. The FEPACI’s call for cultural liberation has indeed been heard. During the 1970s and 1980s many African filmmakers, with FEPACI encouragement, rejected sensationalistic Hollywood-style filmmaking in favor of productions about African social problems, politics, and daily life. The FEPACI has also helped to promote African film both in Africa and abroad and is an important supporter of the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), a biennial film festival held in the capital of Burkina Faso. Africa’s newest generation of Francophone filmmakers, however, has criticized the FEPACI’s failure to make African cinema more commercially viable in Africa itself. Filmmakers such as Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouédraogo have asserted that the FEPACI tends to promote heavy-handed political films that lack technical sophistication. In order to win broader audiences, they argue, African filmmakers need to improve their techniques and choose plots accessible to rural African audiences. Film Production outside Francophone Africa Non-Francophone African film production is relatively limited, except in South Africa. Among the other former British colonies, only Nigeria has built a sizeable film industry. The growth of cinema in this country was due largely to the efforts of Nigerian film director Ola Balogun. Originally trained in theater, Balogun adapted a number of Yoruba plays for cinema and, between 1972 and 1982, he produced nearly a film a year. Since then, however, Balogun has largely abandoned film for television, which has a wider audience in Nigeria. Other former British colonies with smaller film industries include Ghana (whose industry includes directors Kwaw Ansah and King Ampaw), Tanzania (director Flora M’mbugu Schelling), and Zimbabwe (directors Ingrid Sinclair and Tsitsi Dangarembgra). In Portuguese-speaking Africa, liberation struggles have been a central theme in films produced since the 1960s. In the early 1970s, for example, French-Guadeloupean film director Sarah Maldoror and Yugoslavian director Dragutin Popovic collaborated with members of three liberation movements—Partido Africano Pela Independencia de Guinè e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (PMLA) in Angola, and Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique—to pioneer a form of guerrilla cinema. Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972) was the best known of her several films on political struggles in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Mozambique has been known as an innovator in film production since its National Film Institute opened in 1976 and French film directors Jean Rouche and Jean-Luc Godard were invited to teach Africans low-cost film techniques. Years of civil war, however, made filming in this country difficult, and some of its filmmakers now live abroad. Rui Guerra, for example, lives in Brazil, where he is part of the cinema novo movement. Elsewhere in Lusophone Africa, Guinea-Bissau’s first director, Flora Gomes, released Mortu Nega in 1989; Leao Lopes in Cape Verde followed soon afterward with the 1993 release of Ilheu de Contenda. In Angola, Zeze Gamboa and Ruy Duarte de Carvalho released several films in the late 1980s and early 1990s. North and South Africa By far the most prolific film industries in Africa today are located in North Africa—particularly in Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia—and in South Africa. Nevertheless, both industries have historically been ignored by scholars of African cinema. North African cinema, which is frequently classified with Arab cinema, has generally been disregarded because of the longstanding predominance of commercial interests in the Egyptian film industry, which is one of the oldest on the continent. Egypt produces several hundred films a year, most of them B-grade romances and musicals. Egyptian directors such as Salah Abou Seif, Mohamed Khan, and Youssef Chahine do produce serious films, however, on issues such as Arab identity and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Algeria and Tunisia also developed early film industries. Like many other Francophone African countries, they took part in the initial meetings of the FEPACI; in fact they hosted the organization’s first two meetings. But by the mid-1970s their participation in FEPACI had waned, and their industries became increasingly dominated by mass-market filmmakers. Still, a number of Tunisian filmmakers have won international recognition, including Moufida Tlati, Karim Dridi, and Nadia Fares. Algerian director Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina won a Cannes film festival Palme d’Or prize for his Chronicle of the Years of Embers (1976), which is about an Algerian peasant family that fights in the anticolonial war against France. The South African film industry was long ostracized within the world of African cinema because it was dominated by white filmmakers who frequently used film to reinforce racial divisions and perpetuate negative stereotypes about Africans. A few exceptions included directors Donald Swanson, who took an antiapartheid stance in Jim comes to Jo’burg (1949) and Magic Garden (1961); Zoltan Korda, who adapted the Alan Paton novel Cry the Beloved Country into film in 1951; and Lindi Wilson, whose Last Supper at Hortsely Street (1982) documented the forced removals of nonwhite residents in Cape Town’s District Six. South Africa’s first black director, Gibson Kente, released the antiapartheid film How Long in 1976, but until the early 1990s few blacks were able to make films in South Africa. While in exile, South African film directors such as Nana Mahomo, Lionel N’Gakane, and Chris Austen produced a number of movies that have only recently been released in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid several talented film directors have emerged, including Thomas Mogotlane, Brian Tilly, and Oliver Schmitz. Their work has helped break down the former stigma against South African film at international festivals such as FESPACO. In less than forty years African cinema has moved beyond its origins in paternalistic colonial propaganda projects to sophisticated, internationally acclaimed filmmaking. But it has yet to win over the audience African directors most wish to reach—Africans. African filmmakers still face intense competition from European, American, and now Indian film industries, as well as difficulties breaking into the continent’s film distribution networks, which are still largely foreign-controlled. Funds are tight for most African film directors, and the political climate in many countries has often precluded free expression. On the other hand, urbanization and the growing number of cinemas in Africa are helping to bring Africans into contact with the medium. International interest in African films, moreover, remains strong; the nomination of the Tanzanian film Maagamizi for a best foreign film Oscar in 2002 further highlighted the success of recent African cinema worldwide. Other breakthroughs—perhaps more of local interest—suggest a broadening of the possibility of film on the continent. In 2008, for example, Manouchka Kelly Labouba became the first woman in Gabon to direct a non-documentary film. In this light Africa’s current generation of filmmakers has reason for optimism.See also Decolonization in Africa: An Interpretation.

Reference Entry.  2001 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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