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Africa First 2012 Profile: Advisor Keith Shiri On The Program’s Pressures & Successes

Africa First 2012 Profile: Advisor Keith Shiri On The Program's Pressures & Successes

Continuing with the series… but first, for those just joining us, or new to the program, a recap as always.

Announced last fall, the 5 filmmakers selected for the next class (2011) of Focus Features’ Africa First program were Oshosheni Hiveluah (from Namibia); Cedric Ido (from Burkina Faso); Mark Middlewick (from South Africa); Akosua Adoma Owusu (from Ghana); and Zelalem Woldemariam (from Ethiopia).

For those unfamiliar with the program… launched in 2009, Africa First was created “to foster and develop long-term relationships with some of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers from continental Africa.

The aim is that, through financial support of the program and mentorship provided by the Focus Features Africa First Advisory Board, to bring African filmmakers into an environment that will allow them to grow as filmmakers with an international audience. Each year, five filmmakers are awarded $10,000 each for production on a narrative short film made in continental Africa.

Kisha Cameron-Dingle, producer of such such projects as Spike Lee’s 2000 film, Bamboozled, and the 2005 TV drama about Rwandan genocide, Sometimes in April, runs the Africa First program for Focus Features, and her company,Completion Films, has a first-look and consulting deal with the company.

As well as on-site work in Africa, the progam includes a weekend of workshops in New York City with the program’s international advisory board of experts in African cinema.

We posted an into to the program interview with Kisha a few weeks ago (read it HERE if you haven’t; you’re strongly encouraged to do so); and as I promised, interviews with the 5 new filmmakers selected for the new current class (who are likely in production on their films right now, or soon to be), as well as their advisors, were forthcoming.

I’ve already posted 5 entries – 3 filmmakers and 2 advisers. 

Today’s entry is my conversation with one of the advisors – Mr Keith Shiri.

First, your name, a little about your background.

Okay, I am Keith Shiri, I’m an international curator for African cinema. I’m based between London and Beirut. I advise the London film festivals with African cinema for more than 15 years. I also run my own festival in London. I’ve been running this festival for 20 years and it’s called the London African Film Festival.  I also have a small company, an aggregator for African films. What it means is that we supply and offer content to distributors in the UK, West Africa, and particularly Nigeria and the Caribbean. One of our aims is that there will be an opportunity for films from South Africa to go to Senegal, to go to the Caribbean, and vice-versa and I think that can be done.

Your view on African cinema on a global stage? There’s a perception that it’s in some kind of infancy stage and it’s still not up to par with others? And I think people may instantly think about Nollywood when they think of African cinema, forgetting the rest of the continent. Your take on that in general and what Focus Features is adding to the bigger picture?

I think that people have been saying that African cinema has always been that cinema that which a lot of people know through festivals. It’s a subscribed cinema coming from the kind of funds, aid, or institutions in Europe and what’s happening now is that you’re beginning to see independent cinema in a sense that you will find individual filmmakers working across the board, whether you call it Nollywood cinema or a different thing but I can see happening now is that you have South Africa which is the only co-production country with people working and international film treaties. When South Africa got its democracy in 1994, it began to work on co-production possibilities, and now they have co-production treaties with the UK, they have co-production treaties with Germany, Italy, and Canada.

Now, that’s the South African side of things at this point. Elsewhere what people commonly refer to as Nollywood, it is based on the volume of stuff coming from Nigeria and whether people call that cinema or not, it is putting people to work, and from that filmmakers are beginning to emerge. I’m talking about Kalya Ofumalani and they really understand the language of cinema. And there’s hope there that we’ll consistently survive the Nigerian model from that some kind of cinema is going to emerge. We have an audience and that’s always been the case. People say that African cinema does not have an audience so the possibilities for that to happen and there is sometimes a different approach to filmmaking on the continent.

So by embracing digital technology, we’re able to find someone making their own film instead of having a laboratory up to process it. It’s quite promising and elsewhere what Focus is doing is something that nobody else has ever done because they are looking at it from a business point of view. And James Schamus has been very straight forward in talking about it as a business. Another thing is that it helps is to recognize talent and work on that talent. And what we as advisors try to do is help identify those emerging filmmakers and that’s why we’ve been coming over the years. And the result is the same.

We were nervous at first about how this was going to happen but I think we’ve begun to create a brand from all regions of the continent. And I think to have that model and you have all the kind of Nigerian model which is Nollywood, which is actually beginning to be emulated from other parts of Africa, like East Africa for example. I just came back from the Nairobi Film Festival and Kenya film festival with very local talent from Kenya, from Uganda, from Ethiopia and it’s something that’s been unheard of in the past. So I think in spite of economic downturn all over the world, African cinema is at an interesting juncture because we’re beginning to feel filmmakers from the continent to discuss and develop their own work independently rather than cinema of dependence which has always been the case with Francophone nations.

Continuing with that line of thought, as we’re talking about independence and about the “African voice” I guess you could say, and some of the criticisms I’ve heard of this Focus Features program is that it’s an American studio and that they’re financing this, and since it’s business there might be some influence in the production of the film that takes away some of the authenticity of some of these films, or the African-ness of the films.

I don’t think that is unique to Africa. I think we all have to understand that cinema is a collaborative business. You can’t ignore the possibilities. I think what Focus is giving it is the existing professional support that does not exist elsewhere, and I don’t think the filmmakers that come to this program are still at the beginning of their careers and they will be able to determine what they will do in the future. It’s not giving anything to imprison the filmmakers. They are given possibilities to really develop their careers and I think at this stage what Focus us doing is finding the talent and investing in that talent because the program is not suggesting that you change your script, they’re not putting the “we would like you change this.” It’s your story. It’s not top down approach where you have to adopt the Focus brand. It’s encouraging new voices and new stories that will come from the continent because this is an area of voices that weren’t allowed to merge and I think that when filmmakers from this program go back to their respective countries which I’ve noticed for the last 4 years, they actually begin to make their own films from outside of Focus.

How would you, or what would success look like for this program? Are we there? Is there more that has to happen?

I think that success in terms of numbers and I also think we’re beginning to identify genres so we have filmmakers who are doing animation, science fiction, musicals and I think we’re beginning to have a sense that something is emerging that was never the case.

And the success will take some time to know whether it works. But at the same time, we’re beginning to feel that everyone is beginning to talk about this brand in the continent and without Focus going overboard, with marketing the brand but filmmakers are beginning to talk amongst themselves that there is a model that never existed before and it’s transparent. And as advisors in this program, we’ve been working in the industry and I think the measure of success will come over time but we’ll beginning to feel that this is an important program.

So, the films from the first years have been released. Any thoughts? I’m sure you’re pleased with them?

I don’t have to exaggerate this. The first year we were all very nervous because we didn’t know what was going to happen. We just waited and we were all very surprised and the program has managed to get some of the films to London film festival and we’ve had, the last 2009 program into the London film festival this year, and also the 2008, so as such, we’re beginning to develop subtleties if you like for the films from previous years and I’m looking forward to the last year’s program which will be available. Some filmmakers didn’t finish their program but they’ll be up by the end of the year.

The previous work has been very good, and I’m impressed with the work. There was a filmmaker called Rangan Nagoni from Zambia and when she came last year, we had difficulties with her and we thought it was not going to happen. But she knew what she was going to do. She came and surprised all of us by coming out with this film called Mwansa The Great. She managed to do this film and it’s kid’s acting in a country where to train kids to act is very difficult, and to develop that talent and work with that talent and make a narrative. It was a pleasure for me and I couldn’t ask for anything better. So that’s one of the benefits for me of this program.

That’s it! Thank you Keith Shiri!

This Article is related to: Features