Perspectives | TIFF 2021 Filmmakers on Africa’s Cinema Industries From Development to Distribution

Perspectives | TIFF 2021
Filmmakers on Africa’s Cinema Industries From Development to Distribution 

As part of the Toronto International Film Festival's Industry Conference, programmer Nataleah Hunter-Young hosted a panel of African filmmakers for a talk about movies and the Continent.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)
Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) (Image courtesy of TIFF)

The selection of African films was robust at TIFF21. South African filmmaking partners Babalwa Baartman and Jenna Cato Bass, whose film Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) screened at TIFF, were among the panelists. Finnish Somali writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, born in Mogadishu, screened his feature debut, The Grave Digger's Wife at the festival. 

Filmmaker Amil Shivji rounded out the panel. A native of Tanzania, Amil got his MFA in film production from York University in Toronto. Today he is also a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. His film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute) is set in Zanzibar, an adaptation of an award-winning Swahili novel by Adam Shafi.

The discussion focused on the barriers to filmmaking through the whole process, from funding to distribution. It's often with that first piece - the funding - where problems begin. Mainstream commercial movies have established paths to raising the capital to complete projects. Movies with African locales and themes, not so much.

"We don't have that kind of government support," Amil said. He found a private foundation, one that supported social justice causes, who helped him get the seed money.

Low budget productions are preferable, according to Jenna. It's more expedient, and she mentioned waiting for years for big budget funding to come through on previous projects. "We'll put in our own money, we'll put in our own time."

Co-funding solutions are common, including private and micro-financing alongside institutional funding. As Nataleah noted, it represents a continued pattern of under-development of African cinema, even as big movie studios are flooding the continent with foreign-made flicks.

Khadar's film was created as a Finnish/German/French co-production, which saw him traveling to African locations with a Finnish crew. "This is a European production," he said. "It was easier than most African films." As he noted, however, in getting funding, it was necessary to adhere to a set of predetermined criteria. Is it "African enough"?

One of the biggest problems, according to all the filmmakers, was the interference of funding and other agencies directly into the creative process. Learning the ins and outs of organizations and their demands is part of the dance.

"That is not going to work for the kinds of stories I want to tell," Babwala noted her reaction to funding formulas. In fact, she and Jenna met and bonded over their shared experiences with industry gatekeepers. The institutions themselves may have lofty ideals, but as a filmmaker, you are forced to deal with individuals in positions of power who have their own very specific notions about the kinds of stories that should be told about Africa and Africans.

Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute)
Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute) (Image courtesy of TIFF)

At one time, it was necessary for anything called an African movie to include animals. Now, though, the powers that be are looking for stories about "fixing the country" according to Jenna.

It's about having control over your own work. "It's in the fine print," Amil says. "By the end of the project, you might not even be the author anymore."

Khadar's simple love story had a difficult road to convince funders of its worth. "It's not about trafficking, it's not about warlords..." he says. "They're accustomed to seeing Africa only one way."

Those condition laden portals have become the only doors to go through for African filmakers, and such a narrow window means that projects are competing directly with other African films for the small pool of funding, rather than in an open field of other filmmakers.

"The Europeans are either outright racists, or indoor racists," joked Amil. He describes a process where production partners are on board for the message...but only so far. "In Tanzania, it's the NGO system that dictates filmmaking." That means being subject to the NGO's own agenda.

Khadar related that he'd been offered a bigger budget, with the thought of a whiter audience, if he'd written the script in French. He stuck to his guns, and the Swahili source material, but with a Finnish crew, it meant that he was the only one in the crew who spoke the language of the script.

All of the filmmakers talked about the need for African-based solutions. But, where do they come from?

Streaming companies seems to offer a solution, but the reality is that the big streaming studios buy local stories and projects in Africa, and then produce them in Europe. What's needed is an investment in film industry infrastructure in the Continent itself.

As Amil noted, some African languages don't even have words for film technology.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Babalwa summed up.