The city of Austin in the United States has hosted an international film festival at which the works of several African filmmakers were exhibited. The organizers had high praise for the African films they chose for public broadcast, saying they were on a par with anything produced in the developed world. But they also rejected some African entries on the basis of poor quality. At the event, filmmakers spoke of the immense challenges they face when they try to create their art in Africa and eventually market it to a worldwide audience. In the fourth part of a five-part series on filmmaking in Africa, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the endurance of those involved in the industry on the continent.
Filmmakers from all over the world who attended the festival in Austin were unanimous that money was the single biggest issue confronting them in their pursuit of film production.
“Money is always an issue. I had a cameraman who…worked at a tenth of the rate that an American cameraman would have worked at. The only way I could afford to shoot this film was to call in favors from people,” says Mia Malan, the South African director of the acclaimed documentary ‘”My Dead Husband’s Land,” which was shown at the Austin festival.
“I had someone who came along and was the fixer and the co-producer and did everything for free in this film. I got someone to transcribe the interviews for free. Someone edited the film at a very low rate. I myself worked overtime, at night, after work, for free, so that this film could get finished. Because I believed in it.”
“We aren’t talking here about people who want to become big names in the industry, who are reaching for Hollywood or anything like that,” explains Poet-on-Watch (POW), the Texas filmmaker who organized the Austin festival.
“They’d obviously love to break through to the big time, but what we’re actually talking about is people who just want to make a basic living from their art. But even in America, it’s so difficult for them to do that. Of course, it’s much harder in a less developed place like Africa.”
Many of the filmmakers, including some from developed countries such as the United States, were forced to fund their projects out of their own pockets.
“They beg, borrow and steal to make their films. Some go as far as mortgaging their houses. There’s just no money. Out of all the African films we selected for the event, only one African filmmaker (Malan) could afford to attend our festival – and that was because she now lives in the US,” says POW.
Yet, unlike in the developed world, where aspiring filmmakers have access to colleges with the latest training facilities and often receive grants from film departments at universities, African film producers suffer from lack of access to adequate equipment, poor training and a dearth of support from government and private enterprise.
“In Africa, if you’re taking up something that is art or film, it’s not recognized by society or by the authorities as being very useful because it’s not a practical thing – it’s hard to make money off of it, and it’s hard to get money to start the project,” says Vusi Magubane, the South African co-director of the film ‘Counting Headz: South Afrika’s Sistaz in Hip Hop.’
“In African countries, there are greater concerns than with filmmakers who can’t make films or attend festivals. There’s poverty, war, unemployment. So although getting our art into the wider world is helpful – in that it shows that good things are coming out of Africa – Africans have more serious priorities than art. So this is why filmmaking is so severely under-funded.”
Anne Waithera, an experienced broadcast journalist in Kenya, says the biggest challenge facing filmmakers in Africa is the shortage of proper equipment.
She says she’d love to make a feature film for the TV station for which she works. But she can’t.
“Usually getting a camera can be really tough. Priority is given to news, because news is the most watched program in Kenya,” Waithera explains.
Malan says: “When you do get hold of equipment in Africa, it’s incredibly expensive. Because it had to go through customs, it would have had heavy taxes imposed on it. And sometimes when you try to import the real equipment, it never arrives in Africa. When it does arrive, sometimes it’s broken, or has been tampered with.”
“Equipment is very expensive. Importing it – there’s a duty you pay in most African countries that I’m aware of. So getting equipment is really a big problem.”
All of this, say Malan and Waithera, counts against the production of quality local programming and films in Africa.
“It’s cheaper in Africa to import films and documentaries from places like the US – and this is why you have foreign journalists and filmmakers coming to Africa to tell African stories, stories we should be telling ourselves. The authorities in Africa complain about this, but they themselves don’t do anything to help – in fact, they make it worse by charging huge fees to import equipment,” says Malan, who is in an unique position to comment on the filmmaking industry in Africa, in that she’s employed by an international organization that trains broadcast journalists throughout the continent.
“Most of our training focuses on equipping people with technical skills to enable them to be good journalists and filmmakers. And one of the biggest reasons for that is: people (in Africa) don’t have the technical skills. Broadcast journalism is so much more technical than print journalism. When it comes to radio and television, you need to know how to record good sound, and it’s expensive: you need a lot of equipment that you don’t need in the print media. You need to know how to write a script that’s written to pictures or that’s written to sound.”
Most of the African reporters Malan trains have diplomas in journalism, and some have degrees in filmmaking. Yet, she maintains, they often don’t possess the skills needed to make good films and to tell good stories.
“They will end up with us and they’ve never once been out into the field to get a story; all they’ve done is sit in an office and speak to people over the phone. They don’t know what the difference is between a print story and a television story, between a script for radio and a script for TV – and these are people with university degrees.”
Malan says in some instances African filmmakers receive their diplomas in filmmaking from institutions that didn’t even have a studio or didn’t even have a camera to teach them how to film.
“It’s like a vicious circle. They get taught by people who didn’t have access to the facilities in the first place, or to good facilities. And the people who lecture at the college were trained in the same way.”
But Malan says, despite all this, she’s “continuously amazed” by the talent she sees in Africa.
“Talent is not lacking in Africa. What is lacking is the skill to enable African filmmakers to translate their talent into good technical products, films that can hold their own on the international stage.”
POW acknowledges that “poor technical skills” and “poor quality” resulted in the rejection of some African entries to her festival.
Malan says filmmaking – whether for television or otherwise – is “not fine” in many parts of Africa.
“There is sound that’s distorted on TV, there are scripts that don’t relate to the pictures, the pictures have been badly filmed. And those are things that take a lot of training to be able to change.”
POW says her contact with African filmmakers has opened her eyes as to how “complicated” it sometimes is to make a film in Africa – especially if you’re a member of a minority or underprivileged ethnic group.
“All the resources in Africa are in the hands of the elite. And films – even in the US – are made largely to reflect and satisfy the desires of the elite. So you’ll find that even in Africa, very few films are made to reflect the stories of the poor members of African societies.”
“It’s a struggle, period!” POW exclaims.
“Dominant culture can produce whatever it is that they want to do…. The community that’s not as dominant has to struggle. They will struggle to produce their ideas and stories because nations are built off of your art. Without art, what do you have? You have nothing, right? And filmmakers are a prime example of shaping our mindsets.”
But most African filmmakers aren’t in a position to consider such subtleties.
“They’re worried about their bellies, not about shaping mindsets!” Magubane laughs.
Malan acknowledges that “all the training in the world doesn’t help much when all that African filmmakers have access to is sub-standard training and equipment” – or no training and no equipment at all.
“What a waste of talent,” she says.