Cinema must be reinvented each time Cinema must be reinvented each time

African Metropolis
African Metropolis | Photo: © African Metropolis / Goethe-Institut Johannesburg

„African Metropolis“ showcases innovative short films from six cities on the continent. The world premiere at Durban International Film Festival is followed by the international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

A 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.

New voices 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 stereotypes internationally.

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 second uprising.

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.“