55th Berlin Film Festival Focuses on Africa

The 55th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival was special to me in the sense that it not only focused on Africa and an African film won the Golden Bear, but that the world’s second largest audiovisual event imparted self-organization and event management skills on twelve players in the African audiovisual field. With an estimated 150,000 tickets sold, Berlinale does not only enjoy the largest audience of any film festival in the world but can also be said to comprise many festivals rolled into one.

I happened to be one of twelve Africans drawn from film, television, media and arts fields to train at the Deutsche Welle Television Academy that coincided with Berlinale. We observed how our theoretical training was implemented at the Berlinale festival and its European Film Market and how we could incorporate this in our own work back in Africa. Besides attending classes at Deutsche Welle and watching films, the trainees were introduced to the evolution of Berlinale, starting from its humble beginnings to its transformation into a global event. Berlinale began in 1950 with the Official Competition with the Forum of New Cinema coming in 1960. The Panorama, Kinderfilmfest, and Talent Campus came up in 1985, 2002 and 2003, respectively.

With a budget of 40 Million Euro (6.5 million Euros of which comes from the government), Berlinale has no shortage of funds. In fact, it turns away sponsors falling over themselves to fund it. The European Film Market grows every year and will move to the spacious Martin Gropius Bau in 2006 in order to meet growing demand. Each of the twelve training Africans shadowed a head of a section of Berlinale to learn how the latter spent one’s working day.

I was attached to Thomas Hailer and his Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus children’s festival that swept me off my feet. The magic of children’s films was too captivating for me. Although Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus features children’s films, they are neither simplistic nor do the filmmakers attempt to patronize children, but instead to present to them productions that speak directly to their world. I particularly enjoyed watching Cirkeline og verdens mindste superhelt (Little big mouse) by Danish animator Jannik Hastrup, Bluebird by Mijke de Jong of the Netherlands, and Pelikaanimies (The Pelican Man) by Liisa Helminen of Finland. Whereas Bluebird revolves around a 13-year-old girl who is bullied by her classmates, Little Big Mouse tackles gender stereotypes and The Pelican Man deals with divorce, love, and suspicion.

The Kinderfilmfest screens films in the original languages with English subtitles and the translation in German is done as the reel runs. One may also get headphones if one does not want to hear the German translation. Eleven children aged 4-13 years sit on the jury for the children’s film festivals as do five aged 14-16 years on the jury of adolescents known as 14-Plus.

Stressing the importance of a children’s film festival, Hailer said one must target parents, teachers, kindergartens and schools to succeed.

“Never allow sponsors to throw about things parents don’t like or disappoint children and their minders,” Hailer advised. “Be focused on quality, taking them seriously. Never look down on children.”

Out of the 48,000 catalogues printed, 8000 are sent to schools at least three weeks in advance. The festival sets aside 1000 tickets for children who cannot afford the three Euros per head for the Zoopalast theatre.

Our ‘godparents’ were Padhraic O Dochartaigh of Deutsche Welle and Dorothee Wenner of Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema. I think the highlight to African film business was February 15, 2005. It was on this day that Wenner and Professor O Dochartaigh, organized a day-long series of workshops dubbed ‘We Want You to Want Us’ to enable players in the African audiovisual media sector to present their case to the world and persuade it to put African film on their agenda. (I think this was important because 55th Berlinale was watched by an estimated 80 million television viewers and attended by 17,000 accredited film professionals and covered by 3,700 official journalists!) So, African players in the audiovisual sector shared their ‘Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’ in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Benin, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon.

Panelists, drawn from production, funding, distribution, marketing, exhibition, and management sectors in Africa, examined the challenges facing African audiovisual productions in terms of funding, technology, audience development and distribution. It was generally agreed that Africans have to invent strategies of film business that are uniquely African and not Western. They acknowledged that African cinema is opening up to new challenges and that strategies to gain audiences, use of new media, and ways of story-telling have to be different from the Western cinema model.

Among the issues tackled on producing and directing films for new audiences in Africa, panelists shared the African alchemy and magic they use in making films without adequate funds, reliable statistics, and opinion polls on consumer habits.

Representatives of bigger and small film festivals from various African countries discussed strategies they are using to reclaim public spaces in their countries. Among those who addressed the audience in a session titled Reclaiming Public Spaces, were Monique Mbeka-Phoba (Benin), Francis Nouaktchom (Cameroon), Ogova Ondego (Kenya), Fidelis Duker (Nigeria), Hamet Fall Diagne and Oumar N’Diaye (Senegal), and Zimbabwean Rumbi Katedza. Among the new ways highlighted in this session were filmmakers taking their productions to the people in neighborhoods, church halls, schools, community centres, video screening rooms and other outdoor areas around the city, translating certain films into the widely used local language or commentating during the screening for Nigerian films in Kikuyu and Kiswahili in Nairobi, establishment of film clubs where people watch films and discuss them from a layperson’s perspective, and African film festivals sharing films as they did during the 6th African Cine Week of Nairobi when films from FESPACO and Zanzibar International Film Festival were screened in 2003.

However questions were raised by some Africans in the audience over the suitability of Hau 2 Theatre which was located far away from Potsdamer Platz, the centre of Berlinale. “What was the motive if not to marginalise Africa further?” a participant posed.

Dismissing the “so-called films focusing on Africa” as being made by foreigners, South African Jeremy Nathan of production company DV/8 gave participants food for thought as they grappled with the definition of what constitutes an ‘African film’. Nigerian Dr Don Pedro Obaseki, who sat on the same panel with Nathan (Locating the market and spotting hot issues), conceded that quality was ‘still a major problem with some Nigerian films outside Africa’s most populous nation. He said, however, that this would improve as more films were churned out. He said it is Nigerians who pirate their own films outside the West African nation.

On how South Africa came to be at the centre of Berlinale—instead of Africa—while she had allegedly been snubbed at Cannes in 2004, Eddie Mbalo of the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa said his country had “not bribed any one. We can’t be treated as special cases. We don’t want to depend on handouts.”

Responding to the numerous questions spewing out about Africa focus, South Africa, and the inconvenient location of HAU 2 as the venue for ‘We Want You to Want Us’ seminars, Wenner said Berlinale had an independent jury that could not be compromised by any one, as had been insinuated.

Contrary to the feeling that holding the seminars away from Potsdamer Platz was tantamount to not embracing African cinema, Wenner said Hau 2 had recently won an award as being one of the best theatres in Germany and that holding a seminar on Africa there was indeed an honour and not at all a denigration of Africa. “The Western world is under obligation to help develop and highlight filmmaking in Africa,” Wenner said.

The ‘We Want You to Want Us: Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’, was organized by Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema, HAU and Deutcsche Welle with funding from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. Its three sessions focused on producing and directing films for new audiences, challenges facing African film festivals, and what it took to make U-Carmen eKhayeltsha. However, it was unclear how U-Carmen eKhayeltsha, which had been selected to be screened for the Forum section, had crawled its way up to the competition category and ended up winning the top award.

Elsewhere Berlinale boss, Dieter Kosslick, told the press that the Africa theme had not been selected but had come about “partly by chance” and partly due to a German co-production treaty with South Africa in 2004. If that were the case, observers argued, the focus should then have been ‘South Africa’ and not the amorphous and misleading ‘Africa’. Indeed South Africa had a hand in the making of all films at Berlinale save for one or two others. Indeed Azania had a hand in the making of Sometimes in April, Man to Man, Hotel Rwanda, and U-Carmen in Khayeltsha. One of the only two African films in the European Film Market, Forgiveness, is by South Africa’s Ian Gabriel. The other one was the European Union/French-funded Moolaade by Senegalese doyen of African film, Ousmane Sembene.

According to observers, Berlinale appeared to have merely paid lip service to Africa as the 53-nation continent was not prominently covered. Indeed, U-Carmen eKhayeltsha (South Africa), Hotel Rwanda (co-production of Britain, Italy and South Africa), Sometimes in April (USA/Rwandese co-production) and Man to Man (British/French/South African co-production) were the only films with ‘African’ connections in the prestigious Berlinale Competition category.

While in Berlin, we explored and/or sampled the pleasures of neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Schoeneberg, and Prenzlauer Berg where, unlike the chilly Potsdamer Platz, restaurants, gay clubs, pubs, cafes and boutiques appeared to carry on around the clock.

About the Director

Ogova Ondego

Currently the Managing Trustee and Creative Director of the Nairobi-based Lola Kenya Screen audiovisual media festival, skill development programme, and marketing platform for children and youth in eastern Africa, Ogova Ondego is a creative and cultural entrepreneur who works as an arts and culture journalist and critic; media, information and literacy specialist, creative writer, talent and event manager, and audiovisual media producer, promoter and exhibitor. Besides publishing the influential pan-African e-letter and website ArtMatters.Info, Ogova Ondego is Lead Content Generating Investor at Nairobi’s ComMattersKenya consultancy, which convenes IPO-Eastern Africa network for independent audiovisual media content producers, creative & cultural entrepreneurs, social transformers, media educators & festival organisers, and Eastern Africa Regional Director of the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA).