Soon after its invention in France in 1895, cinema came to Africa. Over the next century, its development was shaped by European colonialism and its postcolonial aftermath. By 2005, however, African cinema had come of age. In the beginning, only Europeans had cameras, but Africans gradually gained control of the medium and the message. Africans began also to make films about Europeans and Americans, reversing a century-old gaze.
The history of African cinema is composed of three strands. First and best known is the commercial cinema: feature films made in Africa for the entertainment market. Second are the documentary films made in Africa by scientists, educators, political activists, and the like. Finally, since independence, a self-consciously African cinema has come into being, created by African directors and shown primarily at film festivals, but also available on DVD. Overwhelmingly, however, the films that reach African viewers are American. “Bollywood” musicals from India and kung fu films from Hong Kong are also very popular.
This survey of film production will concentrate on three sub-Saharan regions: Southern Africa, the former English colonies of West and East Africa, and the former French and Belgian colonies of West and Central Africa. Space limitations preclude the wider and deeper survey that would have dealt with topics such as the history of Egyptian cinema, the earliest viable film industry on the African continent, like the German Encyclopaedia Cinematographica, containing hundreds of filmed “thematic units” from all parts of Africa, the Cuban-backed revolutionary cinema in Portuguese-speaking Angola and Mozambique or the cinema-in-exile of Ethiopia. Selection criteria for what constitutes “African cinema” are varied and can be invidious. Sembène’s disdain for Rouch is one example. South African cinema was contested territory during apartheid. It’s therefore important to consult as many sources as possible when researching this topic.
The “bioscope” gained a foothold in South Africa very early. W. K. L. Dickson filmed the Boer War, from the British side. Dr. Rudolf Pöch filmed in the Kalahari Desert in 1907. After the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, cinema became a vehicle for national pride. More than a dozen films were produced in South Africa in 1916, among them the epic De Voortrekkers (Winning a Continent), in Afrikaans and English, which was a huge success in South Africa and in England. The film was compared to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In 1918 an even more ambitious film, The Symbol of Sacrifice, depicted the Zulu wars. South African films were unable to withstand competition from abroad, especially from Hollywood in the 1920’s. The number and quality of films declined, and a cinema of apartheid became ensconced, controlled by censorship and government subsidies.
In the early years of sound, most South African feature films were made in Afrikaans, with plots set in a countryside where sex, violence, big money, outsiders and race agitators in particular were excluded. In the years just before the introduction of television in 1976, the first African language features appeared: Nogomopho, directed in Zulu by an Afrikaner, Tonie van der Merwe and U-Deliwe, by the first black director, Simon Sabela. Production of cheap, subsidized films in African languages took off.
Many of the films of South African resistance were made by whites, foreigners or exiles. The Hungarian-born British director, Zoltan Korda, filmed Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country in South Africa in 1951 with the American black actors Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee. Working clandestinely, the American Lionel Rogosin made Come Back, Africa in 1959. The South African journalist Lionel Ngakane spent years in British exile, where he made Jemima and Johnny, winner of the first prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1966. Working in London with footage smuggled out of South Africa, Nana Mahomo made Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974). The film was intended for Western audiences, to counter propaganda films made by the South African Information Service. As repression inside South Africa grew, filmmakers grew bolder in their evasions. In 1988, Oliver Schmitz and his crew hoodwinked township authorities into thinking that they were making a Zulu/Xhosa/Afrikaans/English gangster film. Belatedly banned by South African censors, Mapantsula got rave reviews abroad: the New York Times called it “more authentic than any other South African film.”
African cinema has always posed the question of authenticity, and none more starkly than the best-known South African film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Its director, Jamie Uys, had been a successful producer of Afrikaans-language films. The Gods Must Be Crazy began with a Coke bottle dropped from an airplane, and featured elephants, children, an Afrikaner scientist, a British schoolteacher, Angolan guerrillas, a Land Rover, and a “Bushman”, most of whom did gently funny things. Because of the cultural blockade against South Africa, the film was released in Botswana, in 1980. World audiences, particularly in Sweden and Japan, were enchanted by a lighthearted fable, while political activists sharply criticized the film’s racism and fakery. But there was nothing inauthentic about its foreign exchange earnings, which surpassed $84 million.