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Mwenda wa Micheni
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Hollywood moves to unearth Africa's potential

Whatever magic Hollywood producers and screen writers have seen in African themed stories shot in the continent, the continent's filmmakers and policymakers are yet to. Or they do but are still acting immobilised.

It's not everyday that USA Today, a leading American newspaper dedicates space to a story on filming opportunities in Africa. But last year, the newspaper did exactly that.

Through an analytical piece headlined Films find heart in Africa, the newspaper pointed out an untapped potential that Hollywood has noticed in Africa.

"Buoyed by the critical and financial success of movies such as Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener (partly shot in Kenya), studios are unleashing a series of films not only based on life in Africa, but shot there as well," wrote Scott Bowles in the article.

"The cinematic migration, filmmakers and analysts say, reflects a sea change in Hollywood's perspective about the region, once a mystery and easy stereotype for the entertainment industry."

Hollywood has been a leader in cinema business but lately, it has faced competition from Bollywood and Nollywood.

This has forced players in Hollywood to change tack in a bid to secure their place. One of the options for inspiration for the much needed fresh approach seems to be the yet to be fully exploited African stories-historical and even current - that have resonance with cinema going masses fatigued by the Hollywood formulaic stories.

More studios have already dispatched their production teams into the continent for serious shoots. And they are doing this with lots of confidence and enthusiasm.

In the past few years, millions of dollars have been spent in shooting African themed films despite the fact that these films are yet to get mass appeal that Hollywood blockbusters enjoy.

"Hollywood has been fascinated with Africa since before Tarzan," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin in USA Today. "But these new films are a lot more realistic about the issues of the continent. A hundred, maybe a thousand, good stories could be told from there."

Several of these films have seen light of the day and they have not disappointed their producers. The Last King of Scotland and Blood Diamond have done well both at the box office and film competitions.

There are concerns, especially from Africa, on stereotypes that have been peddled by some of the film. That has not stopped the Hollywood filmmakers.

But as Hollywood comes to fill her baskets with African stories and sceneries, the big question that African film critics ask is: where are the African filmmakers?

When the African film and cinema fraternity congregated in Nairobi between December 1 and 11 in 1986 for the inaugural Africa Film week, the agenda on the table was very urgent.

According to the event organizers, there was a pressing need to build the required infrastructure to support a competitive African cinema industry.

Several glasses of wine were tossed to a sustainable African cinema; ideas to build a formidable African film industry rolled from the tongues; dances danced and several papers to guide the process churned out.

Several years later, it was apparent that time for the African cinema was not yet then. After the over 2000 delegates who attended the event finally cleared from their hotel rooms back to their countries, nothing much was left behind in terms of the agenda that the meeting set.

"In order to develop, film industry must reach and retain wider audiences in the countries of Africa," noted delegates in a document retrieved from the archives. "Screening of films in various rural centres be maintained and encouraged to develop further. Measures must be taken to maintain regular access to rural and urban audiences to screenings of films from various countries of Africa."

Since then, little has been achieved to ensure African films get access to the African audiences. Instead, cinema theatres have been taken over by distributors only interested in Hollywood films.

There has not been an attempt to build African cinemas and other options, through which African cinemas can be screened, to the disadvantage of the prospective African cinema industry.

The effect of this is clear, especially in the Kenyan context. This year, three full length films were released in quick succession. The first one was Malooned that attempted to screen in the local cinema theatres on a 50-50 offer whereby the producer was supposed to take home only half of the proceeds from ticket sales.

Because of the timing, screened when Spider-Man 3 was also screening- and the fact that Kenyans who throng cinema theatres are tuned to like Hollywood stuff, Malooned prospects were slowed down by the Spider-Man's poison.

So far, Malooned is the only one on the shelves throughout the country but the sales are still very low. By last Friday, only 2,500 copies had been sold. Benta directed by Mary Migwi was screened at the Kenya National Theatres, Alliance Française and in one cinema theatre.

But it is yet to get an audience with so many Kenyans who have only read or heard about it, but not watched it. Then there was Help that premiered at the film commission's mini-auditorium.

"African film and its audience have difficulty coming together: the conditions for this to happen do not exist.

The meeting is possible, but myths are difficult to dispel," said Olivier Barlet in his book African Cinemas Decolonizing the Gaze. Olivier is a French film critic who has researched and written extensively on African cinema.

"Since films made by African filmmakers remain largely unseen on the screens of that continent, filmmaking in Africa is still a paradoxical activity," writes Olivier.
According to Olivier, the problem of distribution of African film stretches way back to the colonial time.

He writes: "When, in the 1960s, countries were gaining their independence, film distribution, in the best colonial tradition, was everywhere in the hands of foreign companies, but subsequently not all parts of Africa were to share the same fate.

Whereas a fiction cinema appeared and developed in Francophone Africa, the English- and Portuguese-speaking countries continued for the most part with the policy of didactic documentary set in place by the colonial regimes.

Even today, distribution in those countries is in the hands of foreign - American or Lebanese - companies, or of multinationals based in South Africa, so that the rare filmmakers who do exist have to be their own distributors."

Even in this confusion, there are countries that have emerged out winners. Burkina Faso's film industry has stood the difficult test of foreign interests in African cinema.

In the country, African films are exempted from taxation to encourage their production. This has been noted to increase incomes in the profession by up to 25 per cent. As local films enjoy tax rebates, foreign films coming into the country are heavily taxed.

All the money collected in this plan is reinvested back into the industry; something that has supported the industry to become one of the most dynamic in the continent.

"The question of tax was (and is still) central: the filmmakers wanted (and still want) African cinema to be supported by tax breaks, and by redistributing the income from box-office taxes on distribution and exhibition to bodies responsible for supporting the rehabilitation of cinemas and production," writes Olivier.
In Uganda, filmmakers do not access the three currently active mainstream theatres. After the Asian exodus, cinema theatres were run down. This led to mushrooming of video dens especially in the city.

According to an authoritative online arts and culture publication- the video dens around Uganda easily take in an estimated 120,000 viewers each day at the price of USh100 per head.

"Viewers sit on wooden benches inside dark structures made of reeds, wood, cardboard and stone watching high action, violent films, complete with mind-boggling stunts, coming from video cassette recorders and video cassette players on television monitors in front of them."

Mostly, the video dens operate in the populated neighbourhoods within the city and other towns. According to the video owners association of Uganda has an estimated 2000 video halls each with a capacity of about 100 people.

That means that a premier of a Ugandan film can reach up to 200,000 Ugandans in one day if distributed through the country's video network.

With screening of several Nigerian films in the dens- usually at a higher ticket price compared to pirated Hollywood action movies - an audience for African films has been growing.

This has given the upcoming Ugandan filmmakers an easier option for mass distribution of local films.

At the African film week of 1986 meeting in Nairobi, issues of distribution were thoroughly debated and viable recommendations made: "National film distribution should be established in the African countries to ensure the effective marketing of African films.

Links should be forged with distributors and film organisations in and outside Africa, to facilitate the wider distribution of Africa films in countries both and outside Africa."

A more revolutionary approach to African cinema was also proposed. Within the plans, players felt a need for an inventory of facilities and manpower available for production and distribution of films to ensure access to a wider market.

The conclusion was that there is need to urgently set up national, regional and continental bodies to specifically buy and distribute African films.

A Tunisian model that was already working for the country's industry was also presented with two key hypotheses: "First, all sections of the film industry are interrelated and cannot be dealt with in isolation. Then, foreign films screened locally are taxed and money accrued therefrom is used to finance local productions."

Among other things highlighted by the case study, cinema halls screening Tunisian films are exempted from taxation for the first five years and are given soft loans by finance houses.

For the purpose of encouraging investment in cinema halls, the percentage of the net box office takings which goes to cinema halls continues to grow as an incentive to put up more of the halls.

Any mainstream cinema screening a Tunisian film gets a tax rebate of 15 per cent of the gross box office takings for having invested in a local production. Screenings of the relatively known genres such as children, art and other African films also benefit.

To cushion local industry, Tunisia charge $1500 for each imported film. An importer who brings in more that 10 films is obliged to distribute one locally produced film and had to pay $10,000 to the local producer of the film.

All these incentives have created the African film power that Tunisia has been. But not without the challenge of censorship that come with state funding.

After years of waiting without any making any headway, some Kenya producers based at the city's dusty River Road have resulted to making cheap vernacular videos.

Interestingly, these films shot in what has been christened Riverwood style, though lacking in aesthetics and good technical quality, are selling in large numbers.

Analysts see this as an opportunity, but there are language challenges that are still limiting the number of Kenyans accessing them. Some pundits have observed that there would be more prospects if the films were shot in languages accessible to more people.

"To reach a broad African audience," says Senegalese director Ahmadou Diallo, "I have to film in French, but it's a double-edged sword: in Senegal people won't go!" In similar vein, Françoise Balogun, notes that whereas Nigerian films in English have difficulty pulling in an audience, films in Yoruba enjoy considerable success.

Does this mean that if a filmmaker wants to reach an African public he has to work in its language? "If the costs were not so high, the dubbing of films into the main African languages (Hausa, Fula, Dyula, Swahili, Lingala and Arabic) would greatly facilitate their distribution."

That would mean one film; with same characters speaking in different languages just the same way television dramas are presented.

Mwenda wa Micheni

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   liens films

Blood Diamond 2006
Edward Zwick

Constant Gardener (The) 2005
Fernando Meirelles

Dernier roi d'Ecosse (Le) 2005
Kevin MacDonald

Hotel Rwanda 2004
Terry George

Malooned 2007
Bob Nyanja

   liens artistes

Balogun Françoise

Barlet Olivier

Diallo Ahmadou

   liens structures

Independent Television Producers' Association of Nigeria (ITPAN)
Nigeria | LAGOS

Nairobi critics Guild

National Film Archives (NFA, Nigeria)
Nigeria | JOS - Plateau State

Nigeria Films

Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC)
Nigeria | JOS - Plateau State

Nigerian Television Authority (NTA)
Nigeria | ABUJA

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