The world of African cinema is a small one, and has been for a long time. Over the decades, only a relative handful of independent African films like "Black Girl" and "Yeelen" have gained recognition internationally, and fewer still have managed to garner any support within the continent itself. The movie-making business is, after all, just that — a strange intersection of art and commerce where money can dictate whether a project lives or dies.
For the past decade, the Locarno Film Festival has presented a special series known as Open Doors; a sidebar designed to serve as a platform for independent films and filmmakers from "developing" regions of the world like Cuba, Thailand, and most recently, India. For 2012, the focus shifted to films of Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically ones from francophone countries like Chad, Niger, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. This year's Open Doors had two goals: providing a spotlight for the films of Africa’s past, and helping to invest in its growing future. As such, Locarno screened seminal films ranging all the way from pioneers of the African cinema landscape such as "Wend Kuuni" and "Po di Sangui" to more recent features like "La Pirogue," "Viva Riva!," "Bamako," and "Il va pleuvoir sur Conkary." Many of the most recent films share a common theme: the conflict of being African in a "post-colonial" world still dominated by the West.
In "La Pirogue," a group of Senagalese embark on a treacherous and tragic journey across the Atlantic Ocean in the hopes of reaching financial stability in Spain. In "Viva Riva!," a charming grifter in the Democratic Republic of Congo gets mixed up with the wrong people when he steals a large shipment of oil. "Bamako" tells the story of a nightclub singer in a crumbling marriage, set against the backdrop of Mali politicians' battle against the IMF and World Bank in a series of public trials. And "Il va pleuvoir sur Conkary" focuses on an aspiring cartoonist from Guinea who finds himself anointed as the new spiritual leader of his village.
The films, though varied in plot, all deal with African identity; the clash between tradition and modernity, the "old" world and the new, and the ongoing quest for financial freedom. They are themes that are not exclusive to African film, but which are certainly presented with an authentically distinct point of view.
Open Doors also included an initiative supporting emerging African filmmakers. Twelve projects were chosen this year, selected out of a pool of over two hundred filmmakers from over seventeen different countries, all vying for the chance to expand their work. The festival provided the opportunity for these filmmakers to learn more about the business side of filmmaking, connecting them with European contacts and investors who can potentially help to fund the completion of their movies. There have been many discussions about the so-called plight of film in Africa, though very little has been done about the lack of resources available to so many producers, directors, and writers on the continent. It remains to be seen what kind of impact Open Doors will have in promoting the state of the African film industry, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
Zeba Blay is from Accra, Ghana and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Africa Style Daily, Afropunk, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. This piece is part of Indiewire's Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.