Global access to African films sounds easier by the second. With various online VOD options, the world of cinema is gradually becoming well and truly borderless. No doubt, a big boost for film industries that were previously unknown in certain parts of the world. One of such new markets that are gradually opening up to African film and TV content is Eastern Europe. With specific reference to Ukraine and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Andy Kozlov, founder at Steppes In Sync speaks on breaking the ice and rolling out the red carpet for African cinema in Eastern Europe.
As head honcho at Steppes, he covers news from Africa and the Ukraine with regular contribution from Cosmos Okigbo Ojukwu, a Nigerian in Ukraine, who writes on the local and international cultural scenes. Kozlov, describes his functions as "rather humble: help those people who seek creative partnership opportunities to find each other." A similar notion prompts his approach to global cinema. "One of the attractions in films for me is an opportunity to come closer to ethnic culture and learn languages."
Afriwood or bust…
Now deeply involved in linking the African film market with the rest of the world, Kozlov recalls that while growing up, he could hardly tell which of the African and African-American films he saw were actually made in Africa or just stories about Africa. "Even later - up till my final years of college - the Brazilian production Cidade de Deus (City of God) was as good and educational to me as Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter; The Mummy (1999 film), Raiders of the Lost Ark or Leni Riefenstahl: Her Dream of Africa," he said, not forgetting to recommend TASS Is Authorized to Declare, a Soviet mini-series from the ‘80s, with an African/Eastern-European theme.
"If we talk of Nollywood and other Western African films, my first encounter with those happened during summer 2008, when I shared a house with a guy from the Republic of Guinea," he added.
It is not a Guinean film that prompted my interview with Kozlov though, but a film with Nigerian ‘roots.' Feathered Dreams, co-produced by Nigerian and Ukrainian partners is hailed as the first of such between both countries. Set in Ukraine, the film stars Nigerian actress Omoni Oboli and is billed for a Christmas/New Year release. After reading Kozlov's commentary on the movie and related issues regarding the African and Eastern European content market, an interview was unavoidable.
"To me, Feathered Dreams is a promising project in terms of setting a precedent. I am also consulting [for] a Zimbabwean/South African film company on how to enter Eastern European markets. So, we will be able to learn a lot from the developments spurred by the Feathered Dreams project," Kozlov said, in reference here to his involvement with Afriwood, a Zimbabwean distribution outfit founded by Stephen Chigorimbo, an industry veteran fully armed with forty years experience.
According to Kozlov, Afriwood aims at establishing partnerships with production studios in Russia and Ukraine towards "co-producing films and TV programmes both in CIS countries and on the African continent. Afriwood also seeks to promote and distribute African movies in such a way that the producers make enough money to enable them to work on another production." An enticing option for most local producers and directors, who are already signing up to the company for access to the Eastern European space.
Afriwood is recording some success with breaking into the CIS content market and will be in Kiev this September for the 2012 edition of the Ukrainian Content Market. "[It] is, so far, the only representative of the southern hemisphere," Kozlov added.
Breaking the Ice
This leads to the question about whether or not there is a Ukrainian fan-base for African film. Like many around the world, the local audience appears contented with the regular ‘screen diet' as Kozlov revealed. "According to the local media practitioners and analysts, all the CIS viewers want to watch is Hollywood blockbusters and (rather pathetic) local sitcoms. Western-ideated formats like Big Brother are on the rise."
He is however of the conviction that if certain African-oriented productions could be local hits, nothing stops African films from succeeding as well. "If Bones, Hotel Rwanda, The Lion King, District 9 can be found in DVD stores of Ukraine and The Gods Must Be Crazy occasionally graces the TV screen here, then why can't The Algiers Murders, Foreign Demons or A Small Town Called Descent? Shaka Zulu was an absolute hit with my family in Ukraine."
Regarding this issue of audience reaction, I remind him of his interview with Nikolai Bazanov of Highlight Pictures, the company producing Feathered Dreams. According to Bazanov, getting Ukrainian viewers excited about African films would not be easy.
"My observation is that Bazanov's company does not operate enough data yet to be convinced that African films will sell in Post-Soviet countries." Kozlov began, adding that the blame goes partly to "the quality of the African product."
In rating the sector though, he is more optimistic. "I think I am still learning the market here," he says of the Southern African production market, "but it is encouraging to see that there are local people who are doing something despite various challenges." And marketing available content to less-likely audiences should not be a problem.
"In my opinion, the biggest challenge, however, lies in the PR. Basically, anything can be marketed into a megastar. But the question is who in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan etc will be pouring large amounts of money into changing people's perceptions, or rather the perceptions of the media industry [and] decision-makers?"
But there is one reason why transatlantic co-productions might be favourable to funders from the Eurasian region. "The Feathered Dreams Ukrainian team sees the future in producing African stories at the world-class level of movie-making in Ukraine and selling them back to Africa. And I think this is already a good start." The trend of shooting so-called African films abroad for onward distribution on the continent already occurs in the UK, US and European countries like Germany and Holland where there is an impressive Nigerian/African presence.
But Kozlov believes that if the collaborative streak continues, the benefits will not be one-sided for long. "Of course, it is too early to predict. But there is hope that if the trend continues we will see more Ukrainians actively seeking to visit African countries as tourists. Or they will start considering investing into African markets on a larger scale. CIS-stemming companies like Renaissance Capital, the leading emerging markets investment bank, are setting an example. It would be good for someone like RenCap to set up a creative industries research department to help us identify the right way to follow."
The discussion returns to Afriwood and its planned distribution models. So far, its movie database boasts more than a dozen films from four different countries. These include the likes of Stephanie Okereke's Through the Glass (Nigeria), A Small Town called Descent (South Africa), The Algiers Murders (South Africa), Lobola (Zimbabwe) and Foreign Demons, which starred South African music diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Beyond displaying content at the upcoming Ukrainian Content Market, the films under Afriwood will also be available globally via diverse distribution media. "Piracy is quite rampant in Ukraine, they say. Close to the world record. Still, big cities continue to embrace DVDs. Internationally, VOD is probably the way to go," commented Kozlov.
Targeting interested Nigerian producers and TV channels as well, he promises them a deal their "viewers won't regret," regarding the content that Afriwood has to offer. With concrete steps towards distribution, the Afriwood team anticipates the involvement of MNet and AfricaFilms.TV, which already showed interest in Feathered Dreams.
For Kozlov, broadening the intercontinental content map is just one of the things he and Chigorimbo have in common. "I can learn a lot from being around him, observing his modus operandi. Like Stephen, I am a strong believer in the power of media to promote human development. What can be more exciting than seeing other people grow to later empower others?"
Establishing new markets for African audiovisual content and breeding intercontinental collaborations definitely looks like an "exciting" way to go.