ABIDJAN, (AFP): African film is enjoying a rare invitation to cinema’s top table with a film by French-Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, as the continent strives to satisfy an appetite for films made by Africans for Africans. Haroun, who left Chad during the civil war, won plaudits for his autobiographical 1999 film “Bye Bye Africa” and has continued to make films about his homeland despite settling in France more than 30 years ago. His latest film “Grigris” is one of 20 films in the contest for the Palme d’Or. It will be screened on Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival where he was invited to sit on the jury in 2011. Although the filmmaker won the Cannes jury prize in 2010 for “A Screaming Man”, few Africans will have seen his films at the cinema. Cinemas across the continent have in recent years fallen victim to a combination of lack of investment and the rise of television and DVDs, often pirated, as a preferred form of entertainment. Apart from Nigeria and South Africa, which have their own domestic film industries, the continent suffers from a shortage of homegrown movies. Ivorian actress Emma Lohoues, who scooped best actress awards at two international film festivals for her performance in Owell Brown’s 2010 romantic comedy “Le Mec Ideal”, believes many of the essential ingredients for a successful industry are already in place. “Our cinema has a future with a wave of talented emerging actors and directors,” she told AFP.
“All we need and which is badly missing is the support of the authorities,” she added. Democratic Republic of Congo director Ronnie Kabuika dreams of the day when there might be a state-sponsored infrastructure for the industry in his country, perhaps as part of the ministry of culture. “Those who try to produce things make do with what’s at hand (but) there is no support, no finance,” he said. Many on the continent look with envy at the way films are financed in Morocco, a set-up modelled on the French system. Government funding has made the country the envy of the continent with six million euros ($7.7 million) funding some 25 Moroccan films a year. In Rwanda, it is hoped that a planned film commission will help the country move on from films made by foreigners about the 1994 genocide.
“We should dare to make films (that look at things) through our own eyes,” said filmmaker Eric Kabera who in 2001 collaborated with British filmmaker Nick Hughes on the first feature film about the genocide.
Movie makers say the success of the Nigerian film industry, known as “Nollywood”, shows that Africa can produce its own films and make a splash in the wider world.
Nigerian actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde was recently named by Time magazine as one of its most 100 influential people.
Mostly shot on video and rooted in the hard realities of daily lives blighted by violence and corruption, the films made over the last 20 odd years “have placed Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema”, said Nigerian director Mahmood Ali-Balogun.
“Nollywood is worth celebrating. It has done well for Nigeria and Africa…. It has put Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema,” he said.
“It is about us, by us and for us…. Nollywood has empowered Nigerians,” he added.
Older, poorer quality films known as “microwave” movies were being replaced with better productions, he added. “There is a lot of improvement these days,” he said. The success of “Nollywood” with its hundreds of films produced annually is also notable for the fact that it receives very little support. Despite that the industry was “viable and profitable” with stars that “take the public with them”, added Owell Brown. You may not have seen any of his stuff, but movie insiders predict you soon will. And good parents, American football and mentoring by Hollywood star Forest Whitaker are what gave him his chance. Aged just 26, from a modest background, African-American director Ryan Coogler is being tipped at the Cannes Film Festival as a dazzling new talent. His first feature movie, “Fruitvale Station”, featuring in Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” competition, touches on a tragic true-life story that occurred in his native San Francisco. It recounts the last 24 hours in the life of a young black man, Oscar Grant, who is shot dead by a cop at a subway station just as he is getting his troubled existence back on track. Riots broke out after the verdict in the policeman’s trial. Filmed on less than a million dollars, the movie made a buzz in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize. A bidding war broke out, won by mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is releasing it in the United States in July. “Fruitvale Station” was warmly applauded at its press screening in Cannes, where it is vying for the Golden Camera prize for young talents. Britain’s Guardian newspaper gave the “quietly gripping debut” four out of a maximum five stars.
“I was incredibly fortunate,” the athletically-built young man told AFP in an interview. “(…) It’s more than you can ask for.” Coogler and his little brother were born to a couple who married young and focussed on education to help their rise out of tough neighbourhoods in the Bay Area around San Francisco. “They put us through nice schools,” said Coogler. “We lived in rough neighbourhoods, but we went to nice schools. So I grew up with both those worlds, and for a long time, I didn’t fit in to either.” He didn’t fit into his local neighbourhood because he was a bookworm. Nor did he fit into life at school, because he was poor. “But I started playing sports — and there I fitted in everywhere,” he said. With the help of a football scholarship, he went to a liberal arts school where he started taking classes in film-making. He followed up with a graduate course at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, one of the most prestigious movie schools in the world. There, he cut his teeth with a series of short films about life on the margins, including a piece about a young prostitute’s fight to protect her daughter. The next big break came through Whitaker, who won the 2006 Oscar for best actor as Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”.
“His company was looking for film makers to mentor while I was in film school,” said Coogler.
“For him it’s social issues. Forest is a humanitarian, he does a lot of work in conflict resolution in Africa and the US, so his company was naturally attracted to things that have social relevance. That’s how my name came up.” In their 45-minute first encounter, Coogler sketched his idea for a film that pulls Oscar Grant out of anonymity as yet another crime statistic, and recounts the last 24 hours in his life. “[Whitaker] said, ‘I’m going to help you make that,’ and walked out of the room,” Coogler said. Funding was scraped together from a variety of sources — grants from the San Francisco Film Society and Sundance, and Whitaker himself stumped up more than half. Coogler admitted he was having a hard time coping with all the attention. “I try to focus on the work, otherwise I think my head would probably explode.”