Unique filmmaking voices emerge from Africa

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The World Cinema section has for its third edition veered slightly away from dedicating each day to a specific country, with May 23 instead devoted to a whole continent, namely Africa.

Technically, this translates as sub-Saharan Africa not including South Africa, whose industry was showcased here in 2005. "We wanted to have each year a country from sub-Saharan Africa, but we couldn't find one with enough suitable films to fill a day," said Serge Sobczynski, who runs the World Cinema section.

But region-wide, an African showcase did make sense. "There's a new generation of filmmakers that are switched on to what's going on in the region (and) the sufferings. And there's perhaps greater freedom than before. The films are not in the highly poetic, symbolist register that is often associated with African cinema. The themes treated are war, Islam in Africa and so on."

The growing international profile of African cinema is evidenced by the presence of Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako on this year's main Cannes jury. His last movie "Bamako," which managed to address issues of globalization and African debt whilst still entertaining, accrued a healthy 221,000 admissions in France last year for distributor Les Films du Losange.

The state of the film industry inevitably differs widely from country to country across the continent, according to Francois Belorgeay, from the bureau of cinema cooperation within France's ministry of foreign affairs, which provides aid for the development of the film industry in sub-Saharan Africa. "In some countries, exhibition circuits are almost non existent," observes Belorgeay. One of the reasons for this is the prevalence of satellite TV; another is piracy, which is rampant.

Besides South Africa -- whose relative economic wealth makes it an anomaly on the continent -- the main hotbed of film production activity is in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with an estimated 140 million souls. This huge internal market is the driving force for what has become known as Nollywood. According to some reports, Nigeria's video feature film market is now a multi-billion-dollar industry churning out some 200 digitally-shot movies a month, putting it third behind Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of output. "From this grass-roots movement there are some interesting cineastes emerging," says Belorgeay.

One example is "Ezra" directed by Newton Aduaka, which won the top prize in FESPACO this year after unspooling at Sundance. The violent and raw film, which deals with child abduction for military training in an unspecified African country, also had a special screening here on Sunday in the Critics Week sidebar.

Funding still remains the biggest single hurdle for would-be African filmmakers. The French foreign ministry is one source, where the cinema cooperation bureau has a budget of around $11 million to fund training and help production and distribution over three years in the region. Cash is available from the International Organization of La Francophonie, the Gallic equivalent of Briatin's Commonwealth. The European Union is also launching a fund. "Without subsidies, there'd be no cinema in Africa," states Belorgeay simply.

The four films showcased in Cannes deal variously with themes of war and the clash of tradition and modernity in contemporary Africa, often seen from an urban perspective.

"Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry" (Clouds over Conakry) directed by Cheik Fantamady Camara is one of two films from Guinea. The movie is about an artist and cartoonist who must choose between following in his imam father's footsteps or following his career and his heart. The second Guinean film is "Un matin bonne heure" (Early in the Morning) directed by Gahite Fofana. Based on true events, this tells the story of two youths in the capital Conakry, who, unable to find employment, decide to stow away on a plane to Europe. The film won the Baobab Seed award for new talent at FESPACO this year.

Portuguese-language title "The Hero" directed by Angola's Zeze Gamboa won the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance in 2005. The movie is about an Angolan war veteran who has lost a leg, and who discovers that even in peace time, war is still going on in different ways across the capital Luanda. The fourth feature film is "Mo and Me," a documentary directed by Kenyan Murad Rayani and Briton Roger Mills about a heroic photojournalist Mo Amin.

The World Cinema program also includes a line-up of African short films, and a round table discussion during which filmmakers will tackle issues they face on the continent.

With cheap and flexible digital production revolutionizing filmmaking, there would seem to be a good opportunity for the young generation of directors across Africa to tell their stories. And when they do, the best will find a ready showcase in Cannes. "The idea is to have a day dedicated to African production every year in future," says Sobczynski.
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