Cinema must be reinvented each time
by Roger Young, August 2013A shut-in afraid to venture out of his apartment, an obsession turned science fiction, an underground line up of naked men hoping to earn big money
from a mysterious woman, the new woman in a polygamous marriage bonding with her elder, an American artist adrift in the inner city bumping into his
ghosts on a beach, a musician turned petty thief hustling his way out of a friendship; these are hardly stories that would call to mind African Cinema.
are emerging in African cinema
Long predicted by academics Kenneth Harrow and Alexie Tcheuyap, the pastoral, lost-past-centric nation building African cinema, the revolutionary Third
Cinema, the “cinema as night school” of the old masters such as Sembene has run its course. These films were seldom seen in Africa by Africans,
but rather lived their lives in the cinemas of Europe, and instead of educating African cinema goers about their past, they served to compound cultural
Popular cinema in Africa was, until very recently, dominated by Hollywood and Bollywood B-grade imports, lately the markets are flooded with the films
of Nollywood (Nigeria’s B-grade straight to DVD market that dominates the African cinema market place) and its derivatives. New voices, however, are
emerging, post-colonial globalized voices that offer a different perspective on Africa as hybrid, vibrant, evolving, and heterogeneous.
Recognizing, and aiding this emergence, is one of the concerns of the African Metropolis Project, initiated by the Goethe-Institut South Africa and Executive Producer Steven Markovitz. But the strong point of the project is the films themselves. While not all at
the same standard of filmmaking, the six films from six metropolises around Africa
attempt to challenge stereotypical notions of what Africa is.
This, for executive producer Steven Markovitz, was a fundamental motivator.
“African Cinema has a reputation a bit like homework or medicine, it’s good for you but
it doesn’t taste nice. However the stories in African Metropolis don’t fall into an obvious
stereotype. They are so different from each other, there is no overarching theme or
style, each story has its own film language and approach. There is a very broad range
of ideas in there.” Says Jim Chuchu, director of the Kenyan segment, “Homecoming”,
“There is a certain type of story that easily attracts funding for African film, and not just
film, but all kinds of art - music, fine art, literature. Storytellers who don't fit within that
stencil have a hard time being taken seriously.”
World premiere on African soil
African Metropolis launched at this year’s Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), as an idea borne from meetings at 2012’s DIFF. Markovitz said,
“We made a pledge to ourselves that we would come back to Durban and launch it here.” African Metropolis is a response to two unlinked realities,
firstly that, according to Markovitz, “African features can take as long as seven years to get made, and even then, due to budgets, are not fully realised,
which can perpetuate the stereotype of bad African cinema.”
The idea behind creating short films around the theme of metropolis is to create a platform for filmmakers to make something good that will get them
into big festivals and get them noticed. “Apart from producing them, packaging them as one was an attempt to get them out of the short film ghetto
that exists,“ continues Markovitz, “often short films get lost at festivals, this way we get to show them to the main feature audience.”
The project is also an anomaly for its primary financial supporter The Hubert Bals Fund which, in the in words of Iwana Chronis, the funds manager,
“really only supports feature film projects. As a fund we receive about 800 applications a year, but only about 10% come from Africa. So we needed to reach out to new talent, to bring them into the international filmmaking community, to bring them to Rotterdam, in the hope that they can find new
partners for their feature films.”
The second reality the producers confronted was that very recently Africa’s population
inched over into becoming dominatingly urban, with the percentage of city dwellers
now just over 50%. This is what gave the project its focus on contemporary urban
stories and culture. “There was a long discussion about what constitutes a metropolis,”
says the Head of Cultural Programmes at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg,
Lien Heidenreich-Seleme: “In the end we chose more cities than we had money for.
And we really wanted more North African cities, so we made a point of including Cairo.”
“Through our networks we approached about five or six directors in all the cities and
invited them to pitch,” explains Markovitz. Primary to this part of the process was to
challenge conventional ideas and explore what narrative ideas mean in terms of representation.
Change the perception of Africa in Europe
Heidenreich-Seleme defined Goethe’s role thus, “We wanted to change the perception of Africa in Germany, in Europe. Africans are sick of being treated
as a continent that needs aid all the time, the images of starving Africans, the sexualised image of the exotic African woman. We started working on
changing perceptions outside Africa, but we have also started facilitating inter-African projects, and this feeds into the larger goal of changing the
perspective of Africa in Europe.”
Of the cities and filmmakers chosen, the final six were Lagos (Folasakin Iwajomo), Abidjan (Philippe Lacôte), Dakar (Marie KA), Johannesburg
(Vincent Moloi), Cairo (Ahmed Ghoneimy) and Nairobi (Jim Chuchu). Workshops were then held in Berlin and Durban. Markovitz says that among the
many challenges the project faced, the biggest one was, “as always, finding the story and then getting that story to work. It often becomes a very
philosophical discussion.” There were logistical challenges as well, getting hard drives flown from country to country, holding Skype conference calls between countries with internet infrastructure issues, and in the case of both the Kenyan and Egyptian film, political considerations; Jim Chuchu, director of the Kenyan short, felt it was necessary to get the film in the can before the elections, and in Cairo shooting had to go on hold during the
While all filmmakers received an equal budget through the Goethe Institut (funded by The Hubert Bals Fund and Guaranty Trust Bank) they were able
to bring on board extra finance if they felt it was necessary. They were also given the right to final cut, but the producers had the right of inclusion,
meaning they could remove any film from the compilation did it not meet standards. Says Markovitz of the process, “Whenever I work with a talented
filmmaker, they have ideas that astound me.”
An array of refreshing narratives
The films themselves are surprising, and refreshing. Vincent Moloi’s “Berea” tells the story of an ageing white man dealing with the demographical
changes to the formerly white dominated area of the city he lives in with grace and poignancy.
“Homecoming” by Jim Chuchu is an interesting culmination of science fiction and a neighborhood crush. From Senegal, Marie KA’s “The Other Woman” is a tender examination of two women married within a polygamous marriage, and their
burgeoning friendship. Folasakin Iwajomo’s “The Line Up” plays with traditionally
Western visual notions of submissive sexual politics to examine the poverty trap.
“To Repel Ghosts” from Philippe Lacôte is a beautifully realized poem to Abidjan and
Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Cairo’s “The Cave” from Ahmed Ghoneimy is a restrained,
delicately observed, study of two musician friends whose life paths are separating.
While none of the films are groundbreaking per se, they do, for the most part,
possess assured voices; they do not present a definitive break from narrative traditions,
but they do represent a sizable shift in what is being represented, and the manner in which it is being represented.
There were hints during the African Metropolis panels at DIFF that the project would continue for a second and perhaps a third year, and even possibly
venture into documentary, with its culmination being, after showings at international festivals, to be distributed through VOD, and then released in a
compilation DVD in five languages. For African Metropolis to do this successfully it may have to open up its consideration process to filmmakers not in the traditional networks, in order to seek further work that pushes the narrative boundaries further.
In terms of the larger project of challenging stereotypes, African Metropolis is certainly a progressive step, as director Vincent Moloi says, “It’s only
through films that we can start understanding each other, I sometimes feel that, as Africans, we are harsh to each other, we judge each other a lot,
and these films represent Africa in conversation with itself.“