Published On: Thu, Nov 14th, 2013

Thinking Cinematographically

A6postcard-v5non-yellow.inddBy: Ayodeji Alaka

sensitive visual engagement with a wider audience by Africa inspired story tellers.

Why should Africa inspired film makers invest in the intrinsic value of sub-cultures and their varied effects on society? They are discovering new ways to bring stories and values that shape attitudes across the continent to more people through emerging platforms. There are digital distribution and interactive platforms. Alongside there are film festivals, tours and collaborations that will enable leading cultural facilitators play a critical role internationally.This is an evolving aspiration.

These are the backdrop to which a critical generation of skilled and linguistically diverse African and Africa inspired film makers are thinking about how stories can be created for cross-over cinematic experiences. They are sharing their heritage, hybrid cultures and aspirations with a wider audience. I make a distinction between a cinematic experience and Video CD based viewing tradition of Nollywood “which constitutes the world second largest movie industry (relative to quantity of movies produced) after Bollywood in India. Nollywood generates $250m in annual revenues”.

To get a sense for trends, the film festival circuit every year is a bellwether. 2013 is no exception, from Toronto International Film Festival , Durban Film Festival The Life House’s Lights, Camera, Africa!!! in Lagos through Royal Africa Society’s Film Africa and British Film Institute London’s Film Festival, they reveal set pieces from the director’s chair about African directed or Africa inspired cinema.

These festivals are tributes to talented film-makers and actors too many to mention in this piece. I will manage a few snapshots.

Although not showing at this Film Africa festival Congolese director Djo Munga’s Viva Riva is a hybrid of Scarface and Godfather, it takes its audience into a world where endemic crooked attitudes and graft lubricates every transaction, the director probably lays bare his country dramatically, as a matter of fact.

New York based Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu’s film Mother of George set in New York aspires to a visual vocabulary that is revealing of each character’s inner world. Andrew’s background, exposure and its influence on creative direction is telling . Speaking of movie theaters Andrew Dosunmu says “The reason you go into these rooms is to be transported somewhere, somewhere beyond drama, via lights, camera, texture, sound. How do you make the mundane magnificent? That’s what cinema is about”. He is tapped to take Fela from the stage to the big screen.

Chadian French film director Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s body of work is prescient. He seems interested in making films that take his audience to a place where overcoming the unexpected spanners life throws at his protagonists’ wheels of life is intrinsic to their livelihoods. His first film — Abouna — was produced in 2002, followed by Darrat in 2006. A compelling story about a father who felt his dignity becomes compromised as he was demoted in his job then had to work for his son is A Screaming Man . It took the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2010. At the moment he is the only African director to have made it to the Festival de Cannes this year. His film Grisris was part of the official selection.

I saw Grisgris on Film Africa’s closing night at the Cinema Lumiere London, one of six venues which hosted Film Africa for ten days.

Still from Grisgris. Courtesy: Hollywoodreporter.com

A throbbing drum base beats score opens scene one, it had the audience glued on to Grisgris’s (Souleymane Deme) physically expressive dance routine. He was in his element egged on by the crowd’s applause which was in tune to the drum base beats. Cheer-led by Moussa (Cyril Guei) a protector as well as crooked friend whose comfortable life is funded by petrol smuggling. As a local Godfather he can dole out patronage at his pleasure. Grigris’s muscular dance routine using a contorted twirl of his paralyzed leg like a featherweight lasso around his body brought a few muffled gasps from the audience. There is layered tension between this physically expressive dancing, knowing glances between Grigris and seemingly hard to get Mimi (Anais Monory) and threatening network of night club racketeers who try to obtain a percentage of his takings. Moussa is always on hand to prevent harm coming to Grigris from his network of lowly racketeers.

There are two turning points. First, the story swings between a chequered but growing relationship between Grisgris and Mimi. It was given a shot in the arm when she drops by for a photo-shoot session by his day job at his father-in-law’s studio. Second, His father-in-law falls ill, money to pay for treatment at the hospital is non-existent at home. He hazards a job with Moussa who is running a petrol smuggling racket between Chad and Comeroon. Very soon in desperation he is conflicted by moral choices he makes in order to help pay for his father-in-law’s hospital treatment as well as maintain Moussa’s confidence in him as an employee. The limits of Grisgris and Moussa’s friendship is stretched to breaking point. Grisgris’s character is in peril with Mimi whose past relationship with Moussa complicates matters. A lot is left unsaid in dialogue and (un)spoken sequences. It might have been deliberate to leave out obvious references to socio-cultural, political and economic sub-text of the film.

On seeing A Screaming Man and Grigris Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s work reminded me of themes and motifs as signature of a film director. Woody Allen’s movies come to mind. In Woody Allen’s case narratives are typically patterned around complexity of urbane relationships (New York and Paris seem to be preferred stage sets), emotional challenges, social mobility issues and self-absorbed characters set against a distinct aesthetic sensibility i.e. jazz classical tunes, voice over narration. Existential currents underscore the comedy we see on the surface of Woody Allen’s movies. I expect this pattern with improvisations when i see Blue Jasmine.

Religious moral codes underscore the lives of Mahamet-Saleh’s characters, patriarchy, the relationship between rural communities, urban living relatives and familial piety are subtle motifs. Aesthetically it is film noire with a place — N’Djamena  — vernacular, curiously moody with dark and light with long takes of dramatic close up shots at many cross roads. I would imagine anyone in the audience watching a second, third to fourth helping of Mahamet-Saleh’s work is probably forming an expectation, they may not be aware.

Suzy Gillet, curator of the Royal Africa Society’s Film Africa 2013 says It’s incredibly tough for an international film to get past the studio system. Even though the audience is out there, we are proving that. Distributors and cinemas need to be braver in their choices, because if our festival, and others like ours, didn’t exist, and if people didn’t buy tickets to see these films, they would literally be taken out of the market. Buying a ticket to see one of our films is now a political act. You’re basically saying, ‘I want to see this film. This film ­belongs in cinemas.’ It’s up to us to get them there”

Screening at One World Media Festival explored how film and documentary makers are addressing socio-economic issues.

Italian Kenyan director Angela Loy’s — The African Spelling Book — is a participatory video project made by the Dagoretti Children village in Nairobi, where a group of children tell their stories through the letters of the alphabet. Even more so with a second film — TV_Slum — by Angela Loy was filmed by eight Nairobi Street kids over three months between Nairobi’s shanty towns, some of the kids go on to become videographers and train at drama school.

I found the use of participatory ethnographic research methods in way that is integral to the narrative’s structure instructive. To ultimately use the process to transform participants’ livelihoods is impressive.

Closed Sea directed by Andrea Segre and Stefano Liberti graphically tell the unknown experience of migrants intercepted at sea — “what actually happens on the boats and what subsequently happens to the migrants”. After watching it I reflected on my own assumptions about a layered issue which main stream media seems to trivialise, with consequences for public opinion and policy making in Europe.

There are many well written books and imaginative authors using their characters and plots to take the world on journeys across a variety of African contexts. They are the kind of stories that can be adapted for motion picture, but remain untapped by scriptwriters.

Half of a Yellow Sun is one of few exceptions in this context.

“… Given its sheer amount of incident, this geographically restless story can hardly fail to engross even in attenuated form, particularly with Newton at the top of her game as Olanna, a woman whose unhidden intelligence is nonetheless often at war with her more impractical passions”

Still from Half of A Yellow Sun — Photo Courtesy Half of a Yellow Sun Face Book Page

Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah or Lola Shoneyin’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s wives on large screen in the hands of a deft scriptwriter could leave most audiences viscerally touched. Each story is driven by human themes of identity, struggle to preserve the known by protagonist and fear of the unknown represented by an antagonist.

I imagine any one of the ambitious filmmakers and actors whose work fill out the Film Festival circuit’s schedule could re-frame the themes inherent in these stories figuratively. Picture these stories placed in completely different worlds, underlined by relationship dynamics in families, conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. It is likely that they would be familiar to audiences from Instanbul, Chicago, Paris, Dublin, Sydney, Mumbai, Nairobi to Hong-Kong.

With fifty four countries each with its own complexities, over one thousand languages, over a billion people living out the stories of their lives, the story bucket is deep and wide. These ambitious film-makers place a premium on the importance of imaginative interpretation and intuitively use these stories to inform cross-over narrative palettes.

There was a time when International audiences knew close to zero about brilliant African made or inspired films and docu-film hybrids. Early indicators of demand are reflected in over 50% filled out venues across London where Film Africa’s screening took place. The story at Open Media festivals’ screenings was similar. Festival programme curators have their sights set on ambitious goals — festivals as catalysts for the big ticket: larger audience participation and facilitation of worldwide general releases.

@the business of Film in Africa Industry Forum. A panel made up of a scriptwriter,video on demand company representative, two directors and producers.They share their views on self funding, licensing, financing, personal experiences: producing work and their current projects with an audience largely drawn from a cross section of the creative sector

They are platforms where unplanned conversations and serendipitous meetings between film makers, producers, international distributors, educators, financiers and collaborative pool of specialists are happening.

It gets better every year with the number of audience seeing films screened at FilmAfrica. As a platform, along with other festivals FilmAfrica is proving an effective mechanism for crossing over, scaling up and stimulating collaborative interest from around the UK, Africa and Europe. It opens up the possibility of collaborations with people like Ugoma Adegoke , Curator for Lights, Camera, Africa!!! Film Festival Lagos and and colleagues curating similar festivals from Durban, Cairo, Kigali to Nairobi.

Africa inspired cinema sensibilities appealing to an even wider international audience? Watch this space.

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