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Can the VOD Marketplace Save African Cinema?

Can the VOD Marketplace Save African Cinema?

These days, nobody has an easy time finding distribution. But the challenge is particularly daunting for African cinema.

The frustration was palpable last week during a discussion about the situation at the Locarno Film Festival.

The session was held as part of Open Doors, an initiative spearheaded by Locarno Film Festival that supports film production from countries where independent filmmaking is described as “vulnerable.”

For its twelfth year, Open Doors has focused on English and Portuguese-speaking countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, following their focus on the French-speaking regions of the continent in 2012. This year’s edition, organized for the first time by Ananda Scepka, saw 12 projects at various stages of completion compete for the Open Doors grant and the ARTE Open Doors International Prize.

The keynote lecture at the event was delivered by Suzy Gillett, curator of film festival Film Africa in London, U.K. “I always tell filmmakers to think about distribution when making films,” she said, suggesting that distributors should establish a network for information exchange with and within Africa concerning distribution. Its urgency was evident as the audience members, including esteemed guests gathered together from various corners of the African film industry, exchanged their experience of discontent.

Language Barriers

Despite the shared experiences of colonialism that unite many of its countries, the second largest continent with 15% of the global population has over a thousand languages spoken on its land. The African diaspora continues to expand in all directions. Communication, therefore, may be a harder task than one may have initially imagined. In such a situation, can we really speak of an “African cinema”? Despite its fractured existence, uniting Africa together seems useful when keeping in mind the visibility that is enhanced by such a tactic. Although the history of film production in Lesotho or Zambia may be considered minor, as part of the canon of African cinema they can become major players on the international stage.

This is certainly the strategy taken on by Film Africa, U.K’s longest-running African film festival, which is organized by the Royal African Society. Suzy Gillett was appointed its new curator last year, and presented their latest edition in November 2013. Before Gillett became curator of Film Africa, she had organized grassroots screenings of African film at pubs and Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema until eventually becoming Artistic Director of the Mosaiques World Cinema Festival at the Institut Français between 2005-08, continuing to act as advisor on African cinema for numerous international film festivals.

Film Africa 2013 was her most ambitious project to date, encompassing 10 days of screenings, workshops and Q&As in venues all across London. Under the auspices of Gillett, Film Africa 2013 saw a stronger contingency of retrospective titles than ever before with a focus on Nollywood, and screenings of works by Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose niece Mati Diop was also a subject of a special focus.

Despite showing a strong range, Gillett confirmed the choices were mostly made from screenings she attended in the past than a result of archival research, as accessibility to archives with a focus on African film is scarce. Nevertheless, her commitment to retrospectives is a valuable endeavor that gives visibility not only to the recent under-seen works but also African contributions to the history of world cinema that have been mostly left out of the film historical canon. The next edition of Film Africa, held in October-November 2014, is scheduled to follow suit.

VOD to the Rescue

Despite increasing visibility of African film at such festivals, distribution for theatrical releases remains a problem. Gillett described the industry as “broken” and “completely dysfunctional” pointing towards the collapse of audience figures at movie theaters for not only African film but also independent cinema at large. In attempt to find a solution, London Film School, where Gillett is International Relations Manager, began the Making Waves workshop at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013 to discuss in what ways films could find their audience. As expected, debates surrounding the video-on-demand platform dominated discussions and the same beacon of hope has been applied to films from Africa.

Gillett’s list of emerging channels dedicated to African included africanfilms.tv, buni.tv and the African Film Library. Another channel based in Berlin and London, Udala.tv, also launched recently to take on the task of increasing the visibility of African cinema worldwide whereas Afrinolly has catered for local audiences with a phone app as a short film platform ran by the mobile network MTN. While it seems as though African cinema on VOD is on the rise, it still has little visibility in comparison to other continental cinemas on major channels such as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. As it currently stands, there are only 26 films labeled “African Cinema” on Netflix in the United States.

As Gillett pointed out, some of them are not even from Africa.

More Hope for the Future

Enhancing visibility in other ways is also possible, however, and some key players in African cinema have joined the art world with their film and video work.

Major art institutions, such as Tate and the Museum of Modern Art, seek to increase the number of African art works in their collection and exhibitions, Indiewire asked Gillett how African artists’ film and video fares in these efforts.

An experimental film-essayist herself, Gillett responded that she hadn’t seen much from Africa that would suggest an experimental film scene. However, she cited the examples of the recent successes of John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien, African diaspora artists who began by making films in Britain before entering the art scene.

With Akomfrah showing the three-screen work “The Unfinished Conversation” (2013) at Tate Britain and Julien installing the nine-screen work “Ten Thousand Waves” (2010) at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, at least African diaspora cinema seems to be increasingly present on the walls of the white cube.

Although the particular spatial arrangements of these installations set the art world far apart from the VOD marketplace, galleries and museums have increasingly incorporated the digital landscape into their curatorial repertoire. The gallery Carroll/Fletcher, which represents John Akomfrah, showed six films by Akomfrah on its instant viewing platform Carroll/Fletcher On Screen, where each film was available to view for one week only during the installation of his two-screen work “Transfigured Night” (2013). VOD seems to be the go-to plan for distributors and galleries dealing with African filmmakers and artists.

This article is part of a series written by members of the 2014 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.

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