African Cinema, what it is, what challenges it encounters and possible ways forward

“Modern societies have become information dependent and information driven. One of the challenges we face in this context is to avoid being overwhelmed by the powerful cultural imperialism that seeks to penetrate our societies through films, television, the Internet and other mass media. As part of our response to this challenge, we have to cultivate our value systems through the production and sharing of literature, films, the products of creative art … that portray us correctly and differently from the dominant cultures conveyed by today’s mass media.”

President Thabo Mbeki on “The African Renaissance: Africans defining themselves”, speech given at the University of Havana, Cuba, 27 March 2001.

African Cinema – Seeing Africa and the World through African Eyes

African cinema is an expression of a cultural identity, African cinema is the search for an own specific style and a way to overcome alien influences. In addition, African cinema plays a social and economic role, it has an impact for the domestic sphere of society (in terms of education, culture and economic development/investment). And, African cinema possesses a high artistic film-specific originality, which can bring a fresh jive into world cinema.

The most important concern to African filmmakers is to examine their reality with their own eyes and to describe it authentically. Showing Africans holy, flawed, sane, crazy, confused, loving, daring, worried, competent, a mess … – just as they are.

And in spite of often poor financial and structural problems of most African countries in the postcolonial era, a socially critical – but nevertheless aesthetic and charming – film genre with highly realistic standards has developed. One just has to go to various international and of course specifically African film festivals like in Ouagadougou, Durban, Cape Town, Edinburgh, Cannes, Toronto and Berlin, to see for oneself. But this is more or less, where the buck stops.

Although we live in a global village and in an e-information driven period, a world wide web of information and downloads just a click away, dominated by social mass media enabling social uprisings and the toppling of governments, one still finds oneself struggling to get access to African films, be it at video shops, cinemas, and online sales agencies like Amazon etc. And only the future will tell, if the highly but prematurely praised Video-On-Demand platforms, which without doubts bear potential, can bring the long anticipated “breakthrough” for African cinema.

African Cinema – The struggle continues

For African cinema, the developments in the last ten to twenty years brought a mix of promises, anticipations, successes, and continued hurdles and disappointments with the same set of issues and challenges that have always confronted filmmakers throughout the continent. For decades African filmmakers have struggled to present viewers their own perspectives, be it due to lack of funding, be it due to lack of distribution possibilities, and or be it due to the lack of audiences in the absence of cinemas on the continent.

Due to a continuous overflow of cheap products originating from the international markets and an effect, which can be described as a cultural alienation, the inherent development of cinema and television in Africa gains increasingly more socio-cultural importance. This development is not a luxury, like it would seem in several African states due to their dramatic socio-economic situation. It is an urgent necessity, even an imperative. Only by promoting Africa’s own capacity in film and television productions, one can combat the growing cultural estrangement and social disorientation of greater parts of the population.

Beyond the limited perspectives of European and American mass media productions, which reduce Africa to its misery or something exotic, these African films present a different insight into the diversity of the continent and its current social and political conflicts.

Films by Sembène  and Co., which are rightly considered to be an essential component of current world cinema, have until now only played a marginal role in the global media landscape. Although recently African films have consistently found their way to cinema screens and won some international awards, this has only occurred on a sporadic and unsystematic basis.

Of course, we saw some exceptions to this general trend, be it “U-Carmen”, “Tsotsi”, “Skin”, “Life, Above All”, or “Viva Riva!”, but their achievements remain exceptions. And yes, there are countries, like South Africa or Nigeria, where the challenges seem to be tackled successfully – although in different ways, different settings and with different results – the overall situation on the continent remains pretty much the same as in the 1970ies and 1980ies.

Basing on the ideas and motivation of filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène, Zola Maseko, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda and Jihan El-Tahri, and judging from the intentions outlined in declarations like the Tshwane Declaration (2006), the AU Dakar Declaration and the AU Dakar Plan of Action on the Promotion of ACP cultures and cultural industries (2003), African cinema is not yet there, where it should and could be.

African films can very seldom attain more than an exotically interesting status and are only accessible for a limited public. Despite the fact that they win prizes at festivals all over the world, these films are rarely programmed for regular screenings, be it on TV or in local cinemas. And although film festivals all over the world have positively responded to the success of African cinema by exhibiting African films, these films are not entirely accessible by Africans in African countries. Despite the existence of African film festivals and the recent phenomenon of Video-On-Demand platforms, the marginalization of the African spectators continues. There are no proper distribution channels on the African continent in place. The few cinemas which exist on the continent, hardly show African films. The videoshops mostly rent out non-African films and the African consumers don’t really seem to bother. They still frequent these videoshops and bring the revenue for the shop owner, although no African films are available.

And local initiatives, who do want to change the situation, are faced by the lack of financial resources, similar to the situation of filmmakers.

Screening initiatives hardly can afford even the lowest screening fees, since distributors sit in Paris, Brussels or in comfortable offices at MNet, who don’t understand or don’t want to understand the context of these initiatives. Organizing African film screenings in a major European or American city might work, since one might find a big enough African Diaspora and intellectual, interested, non-Africans who can afford the ticket price. But the returns made through ticket sales in Africa can hardly justify the efforts by these initiatives. Economically these initiatives definitely are not viable and they seem to be just a small drop in the ocean to overcome the monetary challenges of the African film industries.

Just as filmmakers from the continent, screening initiatives are depended on outside funding, making them dance to the tone of foreign donors, with all strings attached. We can continue to blame African governments and their lack of political will. We can continue to blame Hollywoods dominance for all the shortcomings in the African film industries. And we can continue to blame Western donors and producers for their mere interest in their Western markets and festivals.

But unfortunately African filmmakers and their producers too seem to put more emphasis on American and European markets and festivals than supporting local screening initiatives, local film festivals and prioritizing exhibitions on the continent over screenings and distribution deals in far away markets. The reason might be economically motivated, but African audiences sometimes don’t seem to be the primary concern.

The way out of the dilemma

VOD platform theoretically might be the future and the solutions to all this, but for its success in reality, there is need for a parallel development in internet accessibility and affordability for urban and rural Africa alike.

And African filmmakers must strengthen and re-vitalise the Panafrican Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and its national film bodies, in order to push for their governments, their audiences, their cinemas, their video shops, their dvd sales to buy, sell, watch, and of course enjoy African film products.

Much more promising at the moment seem to be crowd funding initiatives, which have been on the rise since the past ten years. Crowd funding might hold the rescueing lifeline for the African film industries. It secures funding, production, and distribution. Crowd funding is getting plenty of small contributions from individuals. These contributions together can make a good percentage of the total budget of the film. And in addition, since a lot of people are involved in financing the film, they are also interested in the product, which they want to see and promote amongst their friends, families, and other contacts. Hence they play a significant role in marketing and distributing the film. This of course only can work, since social media and internet network are bringing people closer together.

And if a filmmaker has created enough hype about his film, and got enough small donations to start producing, he can show to investors with big money that there is a keen interest in the film and it holds the potential of  bringing some revenue for the investor in the end.

Local, national and regional bodies should create movie collections and equip videoshops and libraries with local, national, regional, and continental content being relevant to their respective clientel and their film industries. African consumers need physical spaces and places where to get access to local, national, regional and continental film material. Be it in the form of movie collections to be rented out at videoshops and libraries, be it in the form of broadcasting on local, national, regional, or continental TV sets (but not only on Pay-TV channels), and be it in form of local, national, regional, and continental film festivals.

And we need a regional and a stronger pan-African integration. It cant be, that a film from Namibia stops at Namibian boarders and doesnt cross into the film markets of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, South Africa, Botswana etc.

It cant be, that a Zimbabwean film only is shown and distributed within the Zimbabwean boarders, then one looks at South Africa, once that territory is covered one looks overseas. The regional integration of the national film industries is a must and can broaden the customer base for local filmmakers. Thinking merely in national territories is outdated and keeps the African film industries small.

African people are too often customers of Western film products. They get constantly bombarded with Western and recently also with Nollywood film products. But they too have to make a change. They are the ones who buy DSTV pay TV, they are the ones who dont demand African film products at their local video shop, cinema and national TV station. If this is overcome, if the African audience a.k.a consumer awakes, there is no stopping for African cinema.

There are more than one billion Africans, hence more than one billion customers. A force to be reckoned with……

On Film and cinema in Libya – Interview with Libyan film critic and festival director Ramadan Salim

Hans-Christian Mahnke: Dear Ramadan, could you speak a bit about the film industry in Libya, its film production and also about the infrastructure of showing films? I know that Libya has produced six feature films, around 40 short films and 200 documentaries.

Ramadan Salim: You know, Libya is a poor country. Before 1965, we really had nothing. Petrol was discovered in Libya around 1963. Before that, Libya was poor. And Italy, as foreign power, made some short films and documentaries about Libya. After Italy had left the country in 1952, the kingdom of Libya made some short films about the big ancient city Lebtis Magna. This was done for touristic purposes.

The first Libyan feature film was made 1972, the black and white film “The Destiny is very hard” also known as “When Fate Hardens” (‘Indama Yaqsu al-Zaman) by the Libyan filmmaker Abdella Zarok, who also used Libyan actors. The second feature then was “The Road” (al-Tariq) in 1974 by Mohamed Shaaban.

Around that time, in 1973, we established an organization of cinema, the General Organisation for Cinema, which then made documentary films, about 20 to 25 short films and also was involved in the making of the feature films. We also then produced the film called “The Green Light” (al-Daw’ al-Akhdar), a co-production directed by Abedalla Mushbahi in 1977, including Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan, and Lebanese actors.  One can say, an Arabic film. We then in 1983 also made the war epic ‘Battle of Tagrift” (Ma’rakat Taqraft) by Mushafa Kashem and Mohamed Ayad Driza on the battle between the Italian and Libyan armies.

Then there was a film called “The Bomb Shell” also known as “The Splinter” (al-Shaziya), directed by Mohamed Ferjani which won prizes outside Libya, amongst them 2nd prize in North Korea around 1985. The last film “Symphony of Rain” (Ma’azufatu  al-matar) was made in 1993/4, again by Abdella Zarok. In 2010, our film organization seized to exist. We stopped producing films.

HCM: Dear Ramadan, can you tell us a bit about the possibility to access Libyan films? How is it possible for a Libyan to watch a Libyan film?

RM: It is not easy to watch a Libyan film for a Libyan. Libyan films are only available at the Organization of Cinema and Theatre in Tripoli, which falls under the Ministry of Culture. But it does not have a library character. The organization has a theatre place where one can watch the original films. But one cannot rent them out. They are not on DVD or so. Only one or two are on VHS. So basically, Libyans don’t have access to Libyan films. We are now thinking to print these films on DVDs. But now it might be better, once a film is made, to make it available on the internet and promote it there. In the end, all people will be able to see it there.

HCM: Libya boasts a few theaters or art galleries. For many years there have been no public theatres, and only a few cinemas showing foreign films. Dear Ramadan, can you inform us about the Libyan cinema halls and its history? Are there cinemas in the country?

RS: Around the 1940s up to the mid 1960s, we had many cinemas, but then they stopped working. I think we had around 14 cinemas alone in Tripoli. Bengasi had around 10 cinemas. We showed films from Italy, Egypt, and also foremost from India and Hollywood.

After 1975 the government took control of all the cinemas. So the cinemas could not buy any films from outside. Everything changed into government hands. Day by day the cinemas stopped existing. They were finished.

Now we will start from the beginning again.

HCM: Speaking about beginnings, you are the director of the International Mediterranean Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films, which will start in May 2012. What do you hope will this festival achieve? How do you see the future and its challenges?

RS: Of course there are many challenges. But we can start. We have many directors, camera men, technical crew. We also have an Academy of Artists.

The academy teaches students how to photograph, teaches directors, editors, and it also provides classes in film history. The academy has many students, every year around 100 to 150. Most of them end up working for TV stations. Technically they don’t apply any differences when working for cinema or TV. We currently have eight TV channels, so it is natural that the graduates end up there. We have to start to rebuild our cinemas. Currently we have around five or six cinema buildings, which we need to renovate and manage. I think it will take about one year to get them running again.

HCM: Are these plans already on the way?

RS: You know, these are all old cinemas with 400 to 500 seats. We are building a new cinema now, a small one, with around 100 to 200 seats.

It will be run by the Libyan Cinema Club. The club will show a film every week, and we will host film seminars. We will also produce some films, based on competitions, for Libyan filmmakers. It will take some time, but not long, I hope. Maybe in one two years we can start. It depends on the money available. Now Libya has to focus on something more important. We need to rebuild our country. One or two years at least, maybe one or two feature films per year, ten short films and documentaries. As I said, it all depends on the money.

HCM: You were saying the International Mediterranean Film Festival is funded by the Libyan Ministry of Culture. Do you think the approach of the new government has changed in regards to cinema?

RS: Before, all our cinemas and films were set in a political context. One person decided. That one person was Muammar Gaddafi. This man decided which films can be produced. E.g. “Battle of Tagrift”, Gaddafi wrote the idea, and he financed the film. He then ordered the Ministry of Culture to produce the film. I believe in short films and documentary filmmaking we had more freedom, but in feature films all was decided by Gaddafi. He was the first to see the end product and then he in unison decided if it can be released.

There was a film called “Leyla” also known as “Searching for Layla al-’Amiriya” (al-Bahth ‘An Layla al-’Amiriya) about a Libyan women named Leyla, which was separated from other women. The film was made 25 years ago, and we are still waiting to see the film. Gaddafi disliked it and until now, we haven’t seen it.

The director of that film is an Iraqi, Kasem Hwel, who now lives in Holland. This film “Leyla” is a good example. Only the filmmaker has a copy of the negative. The film was never released in Libya, it was stored in the archives, and we must assume it is lost. This all, because the cinema industry depended on one man. And even now the film is too sensitive. The film and its production is linked to the old regime so that even now it is a delicate issue.  The film is linked to the System Gaddafi. What do I mean by that? Gaddafi established a company called “Rays”, which produced five films, one of them is “Earth of fear”. He produced five or six Egyptian films, and his motivation was only to shine with the Egyptian actresses and actors on the red carpet. These actors would visit him, and Gaddafi would, by dealing with these stars, get some of their glamour for himself. These artists were never Libyans, always Egyptians. His son, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, who lives now in Niger, was a producer at a Hollywood company. He produced more than ten Hollywood films. The investments he made there was money of the Libyan people.

And that was the system Gaddafi. All the people, all the money, girls and women, belonged to Mohammed Gaddafi. If one refused to accept this system was either thrown into jail or murdered.

So now, if it takes a year or two to abolish this system, we will make the best of it and start anew. We will make films!


Ramadan Salim was born 1953 in Azizia, Libya. He is writer, journalist, and film critic, who began writing in 1979 about Libyan literature and never stopped since. His work focuses on Arabic culture in general, and on Magreb literature and cinema in particular. His works include the novels “Journey and Discover” (1997), “Critical Dimension” (2000), and the non-fiction books on cinema named “The individual man in the circle of adventure” (1981) and “Cinema. The horizon and the reality” (1982). He is the chief editor of the monthly arts magazine “Rainbow”, a journalist at the daily newspaper “February” and a blogger, a film critic and reviewer for various Libyan newspapers and magazines. Ramadan Salim is also the director of forthcoming International Mediterranean Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films (under the auspices of the Libyan Ministry of Culture), 31 May 2012.


Movies? Check! Live Music? Check! Free? Check! The Summer Series is back and we at AFF cannot wait to welcome you and yours to various NYC venues, as we celebrate the summertime with wonderful programs like “CINEMA UNDER THE STARS” set throughout various NYC Parks, and our “FAMILY DAY CELEBRATION” at the beautiful Governor’s Island. (more…)