When the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) asks “Where is Africa?” the question has a double sense. Firstly, what is the state of film making in Africa? Secondly, where are the African films in international film festivals? Even Rotterdam, which is one of the more outward looking of Europe’s festivals, manages to include only a handful of African films in each edition, and it was in a spirit of self-criticism that such a large program was put in place for 2010.

In preparation, programmer Gertjan Zuilhof visited 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa during 2009 to see what was being produced and to meet local directors. On each trip he took along a filmmaker who, like himself, had no previous experience of the continent. A minimal budget was provided for each one to shoot a film while there, and the results were programmed as a separate strand, cryptically called Forget Africa.

The festival also drew on the local expertise of Alice Smits and Lee Ellickson, directors of the Amakula Film Festival in Uganda, who put together a panorama of recent films from sub-Saharan Africa and program of retrospectives.

It was hard to fault the ambition of Where is Africa?. On some days the program ran in three parallel strands, in separate cinemas, leaving interested festival-goers with some tough choices. In general they favoured the newer films, leaving the retrospectives sparsely attended. Packed programs of short films ran over-time and were slimmed down as the festival progressed, so that some of the catalogued films showed only once, or not at all. A cruel trick to play with such hard-to-see material.

Discoveries

Having set out to ‘discover’ African cinema, Zuilhof could hardly come back with nothing, as he confessed in his program notes. “I had the possibly naive thought that if I went to other countries – countries that are not represented on the cinematographic map – I might find something anyway. Probably not mature, beautifully produced features, but possibly some nice short films or documentaries. And why not local genre films that might also work beyond their intended audience? But at the same time I was afraid to come home empty handed.”

As a result Where is Africa? was inclusive rather than exclusive, favouring a presence rather than an absence of films from the widest range of countries. On balance this was the right decision, leaving it to the audience to make up its own mind about whether the films merited a screening or not. This tension between the exploratory and aesthetic aspects of the project produced some fascinating results, although for the casual festival-goer it was clearly sometimes baffling or even infuriating, as one angry walk-out demonstrated.

Take the feature films that Zuilhof brought back from Angola, A guerra do Ku-duro (Ku-duro’s War) by Henrique Narciso ‘Dito’ and Balas e pistolas (Bullets and Guns) by Francisco Cafua. These are the local genre films he was looking for, albeit at one remove since they are parodies of Angolan slum crime movies, a genre apparently kicked off by the success of Brazilian film Cidade de Deus (City of God, Fernando Meirelles, 2002). While the humour was broad enough to travel, not knowing the context made it hard to engage with the films, a feeling only increased by the sketchy narrative, haphazard video production values and, in the case of A guerra do Ku-duro, diabolically bad English subtitles.

Yet a film with an equally unlikely pedigree turned out to be one of the most striking of the selection. The Way to the Cross by Emile-Aime Chah Yibain and Ngufor Chonga Suh is a feature-length treatment of the last days of Christ, made (according to the program notes) for local consumption in the English-speaking region of Cameroon. Previously involved in making hip-hop videos, the directors apply the same visual style and theatricality to this Passion play. Dramatic confrontations between characters, some in extravagant costumes, unfold in contemporary houses, courtyards and streets. The video images may be rough, but are deliberately constructed so that a consistent visual style emerges. It may not always be easy to watch, but the film is fascinating as an expression of an African culture in which religion is an important force.

Nollywood

The most interesting test case for Rotterdam’s open programming approach is Nigeria. While Nollywood churns out several thousand movies on video every year, making it one of the biggest film industries in the world, festival programmers will routinely tell you that there is nothing worth seeing. They will screen documentaries on Nollywood, but not the films themselves.

Araromire, by actor-director Kunle Afolayan, showed how far Nollywood has come in terms of its production values, while not straying far from favourite themes such as witchcraft and melodramatic tragedy. The film tells the story of two friends who discover a statue of the goddess Araromire while doing volunteer service in the jungle. Blessed by the encounter, both become successful and wealthy in the years that follow, but when their luck changes it seems that the blessing may be followed by a curse. As they try to escape their fate, alternative explanations for events start to emerge. Shot on high-definition video, Araromire looks polished, and the performances are sufficiently restrained not to trouble European tastes for naturalism.

Asked after the screening whether or not he was part of Nollywood, Afolayan hedged, saying that the answer was yes if it meant the Nigerian film industry, but no if it meant carelessly made films going straight to video. Araromire has had a career in cinemas, which are few and far between in Nigeria, and clearly aspires to a longer shelf life than most Nollywood films.

The same distinction could be made for Arugba, by Nollywood veteran Tunde Kelani. Also shot on high-definition video, it feels part of an older tradition of African filmmaking, interested in social satire and the clash of tradition and modernity. The story unfolds in a fictional town preparing for an important annual ritual in which a girl from the community carries a symbolic offering into the forest. It’s a considerable honour, which means she becomes caught up in the intrigues of the local king (a parody of President Obasanjo, for those in the know) and also catches the eye of a young student who is otherwise obsessed with Barack Obama and making music.

Two other films stood out from the selection of recent African features. From Chad there was Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou (known in English as Captain Majid) by Abakar Chene Massar and Bentley Brown. The film seems to be rushing through its story of a football player and his coach competing for the affections of the club-owner’s daughter, before settling into a close examination of the player’s nervous breakdown after experimenting with drugs. It’s an intense performance from Massar as the footballer, well-served by intimate video camerawork.

Meanwhile the outstanding image quality in Hawa Essuman’s Soul Boy was hard to see without also noticing the presence of German director Tom Tykwer as co-producer and his cameramen, Christian Almesberger, as cinematographer. Certainly there appeared to be more money involved here than in some other films present, yet it shouldn’t be dismissed for this good fortune. Set in the slums of Kibera, it tells the story of a 14 year-old boy who believes a witch has stolen his father’s soul. When confronted, she agrees to undo the spell if the boy performs seven tasks over the next 24 hours. As he follows the clues and completes the tasks, we are given a tour of the highs and lows of Kenyan society. Clearly aimed at a young audience, the film neither condescends nor wastes a moment in telling an African story.

Shorts and documentaries

Zuilhof’s expectation that he might come back from his travels with some “nice short films and documentaries” was also fulfilled, although again the program was open rather than exclusive. The most evident distorting effect here was the influence of funding from foreign development agencies and non-governmental organisations, keen to support filmmaking as long as it delivers a message about HIV/AIDS, domestic violence or any number of other issues.

It’s hard to tell whether this is really what is on the minds of African filmmakers or simply the stories you have to tell if you want to get work. It certainly makes films on different subjects stand out, such as Daddy Ruhorahoza’s Les égarés de l’hémisphère sud (Lost in the South) from Rwanda. After introducing a bizarre house party in which black men mingle with white women, seemingly unwilling to be separated from their luggage, the scene shifts to the bathroom where the host (Ruhorahoza himself) unleashes a withering commentary on the annoyances associated with having a white ex-pat girlfriend.

Also fascinating was Nziri nin kèra yèyèmahòrònya waati yé (A History of Independence) by Daouda Coulibaly of Mali. Framed as a fable about a man who retreats to a cave with his wife in order to devote his life to prayer, it weaves in a reflection on independence in Francophone Africa through archive recordings of political speeches.

Contemporary documentaries were put into the shade by older films, notably a retrospective of work by Samba Félix N’Diaye, a Senegalese director who died in November 2009. A series of short films without commentary dating from 1989 were shown, each exploring African street trades, such as recovering tar barrels and turning them in to metal trunks or making brief cases out of wood and soft drink cans. These exquisite miniatures recall Vittorio De Seta’s treatments of Sicilian life, made in the 1950s.

Some of the most innovative modern shorts came from African filmmakers who have had international careers and, in one way or another, have passed into the Western art establishment. Nora, for instance, is an autobiographical account of growing up in Zimbabwe by Nora Chipaumire, who subsequently moved to New York and a successful career as a contemporary dancer and choreographer. Her memories of separated parents, of school and of first love are set out in the language of contemporary dance, performed in an African landscape (Mozambique, given the difficulties of working in Zimbabwe). Vividly presented by filmmakers Alla Kovgan and David Hinton, the festival reasonably argued that Chipaumire is the work’s author.

Similarly South African Paul Emmanuel’s 3SAI: A Rite of Passage is informed by practice in the visual arts, drawing on his installation work, and Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Me broni ba (My White Baby) brings a Californian film school approach to a funky, impressionistic documentary on hair salons in Ghana and the politics of appearance.

These films are necessarily hybrid, and challenging for those who want to categorise work as African or not African. However, as the festival’s retrospectives demonstrated, this is nothing new. The filmmakers who founded African cinema in the first years of independence were almost all trained abroad, and reflected their experience with hybrid forms.

Mustapha Alassane came back to Niger after an internship with Norman McLaren’s National Film Board of Canada to make Africa’s first animated films in the mid-1960s, peopling them with speaking toads and other animals. Timité Bassori came back to Côte d’Ivoire from film school in Paris to make dramas full of dream images and psychological unease about the place of the individual in society. His La femme au couteau (The Woman With The Knife, 1969) was one of the revelations of the festival, both for its image of an alienated African intellectual (played by Bassori himself) but also one of few treatments, albeit oblique, of homosexuality in African cinema.

Forget Africa

The films in Forget Africa were a mixed collection, with some of the directors returning with elementary film diaries of their time in Africa or their encounters with African filmmakers. The best of these was perhaps Slam Video Maputo by Austrian Ella Raidel, which looked on from the fringes while music videos were shot in Mozambique. Others came back with more ambitious documentaries, the most effective being the feature-length Where are You Taking Me? by New York-based Kimi Takesue, which cast a lingering eye on urban and rural Uganda.

More interesting were the directors who found enough space in the limited budget and short schedule to produce fiction features. Perhaps it was no co-incidence that all three came from south-east Asia, where a little goes a long way and cross-cultural film making is more familiar than in Europe or North America.

The most playful approach came from Filipino filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz, whose Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) imposed the story of a broken relationship over slowed, mono-chrome video images of his visit to the country. Fragments of a letter are written over these images, from a young Asian woman breaking up with her older white lover, while in voiceover the older lover replies, explaining how he has come to Africa following the break-up in order to die. Since the only older white man we see in the images is Zuilhof, this approach mischievously casts the programmer as the protagonist. More seriously, it produces a film in which the white man in Africa is consumed by his self-centred thoughts, despite the society that is unfolding in front of him.

In Memories of a Burning Tree, Sherman Ong from Malaysia worked with local filmmaker Peter Mbwago to tell the story of a young man arriving in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in order to look for a grave. In the course of his search he encounters a number of other characters whose life revolves around the graveyard and a local cafe, each also looking for something. With understated performances from non-professional actors speaking Swahili, the film gives a striking impression of urban African life without pushing violence, poverty or disease.

Documentary and fiction mix in Unreal Forest by Thai filmmaker Jakrawal Nilthamrong. Scenes of him auditioning local directors to make a film in Zambia are cut together with footage of its eventual production and the film itself, conceived by Watson Mututa. This tale of a man who calls on a traditional healer to cure his ailing son unfolds into a climax of spiritual transition in which the boundary between Africa and South East Asia blurs. In a program which aimed for an exchange between cultures and filmmakers, this seems to be the most challenging and successful result.

Where is Africa? program
International Film Festival Rotterdam

27 January-7 February 2010
Where is Africa? website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/iffr-2010/programme-sections/signals2/signals-where-is-africa/

About The Author

Ian Mundell is a film writer and journalist based in Brussels.