Sithengi’s Fight for Supremacy in Africa Could Cost Its Identity

Southern African International Film and Television Market, Sithengi, could lose its identity as it re-brands itself as Cape Town World Cinema Festival (CTWCF). Pundits argue that Sithengi is trying to do too many things at the same time and that its vision could get blurred—if not lost—in the clutter.

Although South Africa has taken a step forward by recognizing the prestige—and commercial harvest—the country stands to win by making Sithengi the world’s favorite African film market and exhibition mecca, they should avoid biting more than she can chew. For instance, organizers of the festival and market try to cater to the needs of everyone from children to international audience, with specific mini festivals—Indonesian, Italian, German—workshops, feature and documentary film co-production fora, and animation festivals, among others.

Among the highlights of the ninth Sithengi and Cape Town World Cinema (November 12-20, 2004) were the launch of the Berlin World Cinema Fund, Hivos-Sithengi Film Fund, Sithengi Talent Campus, and the meeting of organizers and managers of African film festivals. Sponsored to the tune of 500,000 euros per year, the Berlin World Cinema Fund will run for three years. Grants of up to 100,000 euros are available to filmmakers from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia. But the fund can be accessed if a German partner is involved, although co-production is not a requirement.

The Berlin World Cinema is expected to support documentary and feature films with a German connection. “The necessity of a German partner”, said Dorothee Wenner of the Berlin Film Festival, “is not to keep money and investment in Germany, but to ensure the European afterlife of the films and theatrical release for them. Films could be launched at the Berlinale or at other German film festivals.”

While the Berlin World Cinema will support documentaries and features with a German connection, the HIVOS-Sithengi fund will benefit filmmakers in the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) states, although Tanzania, that belongs both to SADC and East African Community, is excluded.

The ninth Sithengi also saw South Africa sign a co-production treaty with Germany. Another partnership was struck between Sithengi and Berlinale, when Berlinale hosted the Talent Campus for African filmmakers. Other collaborations included South Africa explored co-production possibilities with Nigeria, Brazil and Sweden during Sithengi and a meeting of African film festival organizers. Those present were drawn from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, the United States and Italy.

The more than 10 participants present also resolved to establish regional organizations corresponding to East, South, West, North and Central Africa that would eventually be affiliated with the envisaged continental organization at the 19th Pan African Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in 2005.

The meeting resolved that the objectives of the continental organization, modeled alongside the New Partnership for Development of Africa (NEPAD) and the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes (FEPACI) frame work, are to build capacity, to agree upon a code of ethics and regulations to govern the various festivals and also to bring about networking and collaboration among African players, for synergy. It was agreed that the festivals would establish a discussion list, exchange website links and try to standardise the way that various festivals around Africa are run in order to help promote African films. However, nothing much has happened since the November 2004 meeting.

Beside collaborations, ideas were shared at the Talent Campus held in conjunction with the Berlin Film Festival. Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting talked about innovation and digital technology. With filmmakers now being able to shoot digitally, edit digitally and even provide a digital master for most film festivals, Broderick said, there need not be a rush to make a film print, except for theatrical distribution. He stressed that filmmakers should not “ask what is the lowest budget you can make a film for but rather, what’s the lowest budget a film can be made well for?” More than 60 aspiring filmmakers interacted with local and international experts in strategic workshops.

Another idea that players in the African audiovisual sector welcomed at Sithengi was the appeal to African governments to regulate broadcasting through quotas of local content. Addressing an audiovisual media distribution workshop, Patricia Scarlet of Canada said African governments should set up quotas for all broadcasters to facilitate the growth of film in Africa. If a people cannot define themselves or show images of themselves to the world, it means they allow themselves to be dominated by American values which is ultimately a detriment to cultural diversity around the world.

She paid tribute to the Nigerian home video model, pointing out that it is serving the West African nation well and that they should continue to make films in their own way until the time comes when the audiovisual sector will have developed to stand on its own in the world of filmmaking.

During a seminar illustrating the buying habits of African television, it was agreed that anything African can be regarded as local but ZNBC categorically stated that anything that one requires a passport to go and buy does not qualify as local. The same sentiments were echoed by Victor Mphande of Malawi TV who claimed that his station was very traditional and respects the Malawian culture very much. However, because of it is only five years young, there are no production houses in Malawi, thereby introducing another discussion that suggested training sessions to equip local people to produce films for local consumption.

Issues about the prices and quality of local programs for local broadcasters also arose. Most of the TV stations attending the conference were vague when it came to how much money is spent on local programs in their respective countries. All they could say was that they “negotiate” with the producers. In some cases a local product might not find its way to the TV because of its poor quality or the broadcaster might dictate the price which has the potential to make the producer unhappy. It was suggested that the way around this was to co-produce the programs.

Rita Mbanga, a representative of NBC, mentioned that the network was mainly  interested in animation programs for children and potentially soaps as well. She said she would buy these programs for US$200 – US$300 per “good” program from the local producers, a price Mbanga deemed reasonable.

Public broadcaster, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), issued commissioning briefs to the value of ZAR120 million as pay-TV broadcaster M-Net launched its New Directions 2005 project that will oversee the making of four short dramas and one documentary.

Meanwhile, at the Documentary and Feature Film Co-production Fora, with many international commissioning editors and acquisition executives on their panels, South African Vincent Moloi won the Hubert Bals Foundation’s Best Documentary Film project for his work-in progress, Men of Gold and a Pair of Boots and a Bicycle while Zimbabweans Jacki Cahi and Rumbi Katedza won the Goteborg bursary to develop their feature film, Playing Warriors.

Table Mountain Motion Picture Studios, the largest independent sound stage complex in Cape Town, was opened to coincide with 9th Sithengi, where over 1900 delegates from 45 countries were present. Michael Auret, the managing director of Sithengi and festival director of the CTWCF, said, “South Africa’s 10th anniversary of democracy is seeing a catapult of local and African films. The health and vigour of the South African industry is mirrored by Sithengi and CTWCF.”

Although many Africans welcome the emergence of Sithengi as an alternative to the French-dominated FESPACO, others like Malian filmmaker and academic Manthia Diawara, who agree that the festival has been taken over by France, do not think Anglo-phone Sithengi can counter FESPACO. “While many African films have little chance of being accepted at FESPACO, South Africa is not the home for African cinema because it has European aesthetic values and mentality. You need a truly African film festival that is respected by Africans to counter both FESPACO and Southern African International Film and Television Market (Sithengi) that is being re-branded as Cape Town World Cinema Festival.” He suggests that a truly African film festival be situated in East Africa in Nairobi, Kampala or Dar es Salaam. The success of such a festival, Diawara suggests, would depend on well-defined programs and identity. “For example, it could specialize in African documentary, African experimental film, or commercial African cinema. Issues of market and aesthetics could come in periodically.”