tiff Bell Digital Talks: Planet Africa Black Film Now

tiff Bell Digital Talks
Planet Africa
Black Film Now

Planet Africa was a TIFF initiative, a programme designed to showcase films from Africa and throughout the diaspora that became hugely popular at the festival for about a decade. Twenty-five years after it began, the 2020 Festival honoured that effort with a talk that featured four of the Black filmmakers at TIFF this year in a discussion about the state of Black film now.

Planet Africa Black Film Now
Tommy Oliver, Dawn Porter, Charles Officer, Dieudo Hamadi

Cameron Bailey was the moderator. While he is of course TIFF's artistic director and co-head these days, in fact, his involvement with the festival began as one of the founders of Planet Africa.

Participating were Americans Dawn Porter (The Way I See It) and Tommy Oliver (40 Years A Prisoner), Canadian Charles Officer (Akilla's Escape), and Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi (Downstream to Kinshasa).

This year's festival took place largely online, including the Talk, which was held on Zoom. Still, the TIFF experience is valuable, the filmmakers said.

"It's almost an overwhelming honour to be part of this group," Porter noted. "Canadian audiences have so warmly embraced my film." She mentioned participating in panel discussions along with in-person screenings. 

Torontonian Charles Officer was the only filmmaker attending in person. "It's been wild," he said. "This city - the city I grew up in - it's a dream to present it here." His first public screening was held at Ontario Place. "The weather was beautiful, we were lucky for that." The indoor, social distanced screenings felt strange, he said. "It was hard to feel engaged."

American filmmaker Tommy Oliver's first film premiered at TIFF back in 2013. "It's been completely different," he said. 

Downstream to Kinshasa

Bailey mentioned the fact that noted Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène visited Toronto and TIFF in 2004 with Moolaadé, his last film, and that at the age of 81. He then asked the panel how - and whether - they saw themselves in the context of African film.  

"Have I earned this mantle of "African filmmaker"?" asked Dawn Porter. As she mentioned, it is a question at the heart of African American identity. Are they part of the community?

"Pan African?" wondered Oliver. "I appreciate it, because you can't separate the fact that I'm black from the fact that I'm a filmmaker," he explained. "We are finally getting to a place where we are telling our own stories, and celebrating our own stories."

For Hamadi, however, working in DRC in Central Africa, there is no sense of community - or even of a film industry as such. Outside Nollywood, there is no infrastructure to connect to.

Planet Africa was, in some ways, a victim of its own success. As the profile of African films was raised overall, filmmakers became reluctant to be associated with what was seen as a niche - and not the mainstream of TIFF. 

Officer, however, pointed out that Planet Africa and its legendary parties was an invaluable source for networking. He said he met Saul Williams, the lead in his movie, at such a gathering. "It has been instrumental in my education in filmmaking."

Others spoke of a continued need for a boost for Black filmmakers in the industry. "You can keep chasing the awards that are stacked against you, or seek affirmation elsewhere," Porter noted. 

As far as a lack of diversity in the awards, it's just business as usual. "It's a system that is doing exactly what it was designed to do," Oliver, the only Black producer on the panel, noted. 

While others were optimistic about the democratizing effects of streaming, Officer was less impressed, particularly with Canadian Crave service and its lack of enthusiasm for Black film.

Identity and access - it's still the same landscape.

Akilla's Escape