Early this year, there was talk about Hollywood A-lister Idris Elba looking to build a major movie studio in Tanzania. More homegrown filmmakers and professionals are also working to create new paradigm shifts and give the African film industry the boost and blockbuster attention it deserves.
The experience of every filmmaker in Africa is – creating stories from the ground up, immersing themselves in the communities they are in, telling stories and working laboriously with crew who only have the conviction of their art to keep going. Most times, you are on a tight budget and with limited infrasructure, but you make it work and try and get on to the festival circuit too. But grants are limited and so also distribution networks. Such is the story of the film industry in most parts of the continent, despite the zeal and enthusiasm from creatives on the continent, as well as their supporters abroad.
For renowned Tanzanian filmmaker, Amil Shivji, these issues hit close to home.
While he has been able to make significant progress on multiple big movies locally, he often had to outsource editing to a different country, for instance, or struggle with the infrastructure and crew available. And for the students he teaches at the University of Dar es Salaam, making a film of festival-caliber seems like a distant dream – at least for now.
“Our students don’t have access to equipment, they have to do a lot of theory and are unable to get production experience – the markets are the ones that dictate the kind of content that’s coming out,” he rues. “But the markets are dependent on the infrastructure as well… we are losing out on making original productions and telling our own stories.”
There is funding for filmmaking and infrastructure building coming in especially from the NGO sector, but they have agendas that do not always give filmmakers the flexibility to tell their own stories, he adds.
“I mean, take your pick, there is help needed across the board – financing, infrastructure, training, distribution. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” echoes Tambay Obenson, an African-American filmmaker, journalist and entrepreneur of Nigerian and Cameroonian descent, who started Akoroko, a subscription streaming service that offers a hand-picked and curated selection of arthouse, independent, and international films telling African stories, supported by contextual materials.
For Ethiopian-American filmmaker, Mehret Mandefro, despite her film, Difret (2014) being the first film to win the audience awards at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlinale Panorama, and be selected as Ethiopia’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Annual Academy Awards, she struggled to find her audience and distribution in Africa, despite telling an important story of a young Ethiopian girl and a tenacious lawyer embroiled in a life-or-death clash between cultural traditions and their country’s advancement of equal rights.
Obenson emphasizes that the underappreciation of African cinema at home and abroad is the reason he started Akoroko.
“As an African, I almost also kind of felt like I was coming home, metaphorically, figuratively, to do this. I’ve been in the business for so long, and this is the first time that I decided to really focus on Africa. I decided to do it for those reasons. There’s a need and I’m passionate about the art form. And as an African, I think there’s a lot of work that could be done.”
Yet the industry varies so much across the continent, making the challenge of building a robust film industry and culture from the ground up even more difficult. “I wouldn’t even use the word industry, I’ll say African film industries, says Obenson. “Some countries are more developed and have more prominent industries than others.”
Nigeria, home to Nollywood, boasts the most-prominent and varied industry of its kind today.
Northern Africa with Arab cinema has also been active since the 1950s. And then, there is South Africa, featuring a strong service industry and large production and post-production operations.
Kenya is also an up-and-coming industry with a strong middle class and making waves in the film festival circuit.
It is no surprise that large streaming services like Netflix have made these regions their new hubs for investment and talent development, notes Shivji.
Netflix’s socio-economic impact report for Africa released in April highlights key productions and an investment of $175 million in content and the local creative ecosystems in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya combined.
But Netflix seems to be aiming for more.
“At Netflix, our work is not only about investing in local creative partners to produce exciting stories and bringing them to members around the world – it’s also investing in skills development and capacity, building opportunities that will ultimately contribute to the growth of Africa’s film and TV industries. This is a work in progress, and we’re excited to be a key part of this journey on the African continent,” says Ben Amadasun, Director of Content, Middle East and Africa at Netflix, to FORBES AFRICA.
While veterans like Mandefro have been trying to build out these ecosystems in a pan-African way with the co-founding of spaces like the Realness Institute, one of the continent’s best incubators for African filmmakers, she sees Netflix as a significant partner in creating opportunities for filmmakers on the ground.
“[Netflix] is thinking about upstream stuff, trying to incentivize and help out who goes into film in the first place. And then also really thinking about all those things that you need, like the story editors and development executives in order to build out a market,” emphasizes Mandefro. “So, I think that’s really commendable.”
But for filmmakers like Shivji, such reports and promises come with a grain of salt. For him, the growing middle class in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya already bolster Netflix’s subscriber base, leaving out many other countries.
“We are selling ourselves short to just have one country from each region. We should really get past the stage of just being happy with what we’re given and be able to argue for more, because this is a platform that prides itself on showing international films. So, we want to be able to show more films, and we want to sell our films to Netflix and be able to get a fair deal,” he says.
And if not a Western financing giant like Netflix, then who?
“It’s really coverage and access. African cinema has been grossly undervalued on the international stage and international film marketplace,” says Obenson. There is the need to tell African stories to the world, and despite the content overload for audiences, governments need to step up, he emphasizes. Not only are there few film journalists, but the consistency is also missing as also the incentives for filmmakers to excel.
Obenson believes self-funding and creating opportunities locally is the way forward, making it less easy for western institutions to dictate African storytelling. “As a whole, I think that the potential is just immense,” he adds. “And the rest of the world is increasingly interested in African stories.
“…just to allow African filmmakers to be able to tell African stories in Africa with African money without having to rely on others.”
There is more than one reason this matters. “We as Africans need to start to value filmmaking as a craft and as an art form and recognize the power of storytelling. We talk about soft power; the United States has been using this since the beginning of Hollywood,” he says.
“Hollywood films travel, they dominate theaters across the world. I don’t know if African films will ever get there, we will get there but just realizing that there is power in the fact that filmmakers can have an impact on how the rest of the world sees the continent.”
And while Mandefro recognizes more African countries setting up film commissions, there is a need to acknowledge the urgency western institutions are already seeing while rushing to the continent. Africa has a median age of 19 years and consumer spending is set to reach $2.5 trillion by 2030, and by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be in Africa.
“Every business, if you don’t have an Africa strategy, you’re gonna miss out on a lot of growth, or potential for growth.”
Yet, unemployment levels are high on the continent, up to 60% on average, according to the World Bank.
“Investing in stories means increasing exposure for all of the countries, it does more for tourism than anything else. And I often, when I find myself in policy circles, talk a lot about investing in storytellers, investing in films, TV and media. The media entrepreneurs are really the new infrastructure investment. This is where the jobs of the future are coming from, especially for young people,” says Mandefro.
“So, governments need to be really smart about incentivizing and setting some policies up that make it easier for these entrepreneurs to be successful, so it means not being so heavy-handed with regulations, for instance.”
Shivji also mentions the importance of building state-funded film festivals and institutionalizing them, especially as something filmmakers can always fall back on.
“This is where we’re able to educate new audiences, we’re able to travel with the films, we’re able to invite new filmmakers and new artists. And those collaborations are happening at festivals for filmmakers almost half of your life. It’s where you really build your career, you’re able to network and all the events around it are super important,” he opines.
But whether it is cinema under the stars in the middle of an open field, or a phone on a commute in the daily bustle of the city, or in the comfort of your home or at the theater, African cinema is finding its place, both on the festival circuit and in people’s hearts across the globe.
“This is the golden age of African cinema. Our continent has great talent and world-class creatives,” echoes Amadasun.
“Whether you liked or hated Black Panther, it certainly did something for the world. It’s like people discovered Africa all of a sudden. But that’s how it works when you’re not exposed. And so, I think it’s the appetite,” says Mandefro.
“And even the realization that storytelling has been so incredibly closed for so long, right? There were no real global stories in the sense of, like us being able to consume, so this is where obviously platforms like Netflix have also changed the game. So, a series like the Squid Games makes us realize there’s a whole world out there.”
Yet, for Shivji, the focus should remain on the development of authentic African cinema, which can be poetic, experimental, and give a platform to independent African stories.
“Film is supposed to be a mirror to our society and present our culture… African filmmakers need to always be at the decision-making table,” he adds.
Obenson hopes these new shifts in the industry work to inspire local favor towards financing films and film infrastructure, whether that is local companies, local production companies or just local financiers.
“Let’s put our heads together and try to create something that competes [abroad],” he says. “I’m hopeful as there is a paradigm shift. I think there’s no going back from here.”
The development of cinema continues to be challenging, but there is a bright light at the end of the cinematic tunnel.
“One of my pet peeves is, you know, development doesn’t happen in Africa,” says Mandefro. “In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be an African filmmaker.”