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African filmmakers in Urgent Need of Mentors


A number of films produced by Africans, or with African themes, were selected for public viewing at the recent Austin Women’s Film Festival in the United States. But the organizers rejected some African entries on the basis of poor quality. Many African filmmakers are extremely talented, but don’t have access to adequate equipment and training. At the festival, organizers stressed the need for successful filmmakers to go to Africa to mentor their colleagues who work in underprivileged conditions. In the final part of a series focusing on African film production, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on advice offered to struggling filmmakers in Africa.

The Texas DJ and filmmaker known as POW – Poet on Watch – organized the Austin festival and received “hundreds” of submissions from all over the world. Many, though, weren’t good enough for public broadcast. Filmmakers, says POW, often blame the lack of quality in their work on funding constraints. This excuse, she says, only “holds water to a limited degree.”

“You’re only as rich as your mind tells you that you are. So if you don’t go out and seek the knowledge, you have nothing. Nobody’s going to give you anything! The first book that I put out – I didn’t have the money to put it out, or my first film…. But what I had was a passionate desire.”

She says if people in Africa “have the passionate desire to get up every day and walk down to the river and get some water” then she’s certain that they have “passionate desire every day to figure out how (they’re) going to make a film.”

POW insists that filmmakers don’t need the most expensive equipment to make good films.

“A lot can be achieved with relatively cheap equipment – provided the filmmaker has an interesting story to tell. You can use the most expensive stuff in the world, but if you haven’t got a compelling story to tell, you have nothing.”

Most films from Africa she received as possible entries to her festival contained “excellent visuals,” she says. But their scripts were badly written, and the audio was often poor.

“A lot of filmmakers concentrate on getting great pictures but then they neglect the script and the sound. What they forget is that all films begin on paper, and that sound is just as important as pictures in making a good film,” POW explains.

She urges filmmakers in Africa to “focus on making sure their audio is really good – film audio is so important. Your pictures can look crappy, but if the audio is strong, that’s what grabs people.”

But POW says nothing – not even lack of equipment – should stop someone from making films, if that’s what they want to do.

“Get the movie on your cell phone! When filmmakers tell me they don’t have something (with which to shoot the film), I look at them and ask: Why not? You got a cell phone! Make a picture. You got a piece of paper and a digital camera: Make a movie. I don’t want to hear that you can’t do it.”

However, Vusi Magubane, a South African filmmaker, says the “passionate desire” that POW speaks of “will take a person only so far, and no further.”

“A filmmaker can’t get great sound and great pictures if he or she doesn’t have great equipment. Who is going to watch a film with great sound, but that is filmed badly?” he asks.

For Mia Malan, another South African whose film was shown at the Austin festival, the solution to a general lack of quality in African film production lies in “intensive mentoring.”

She works for an international organization that nurtures African journalists, and says she’s seen their talent “bloom” and their skills improve “immensely” as a result of guidance from experienced reporters.

“So even though equipment is expensive and people (in Africa) often don’t have access to it – let’s say they do have access to it: It means nothing without a mentor…. You need to have someone that you can look up to and that you can learn from. You need to be able to see good products around you every day and learn from them. A mentor is so important for every single filmmaker or journalist in Africa,” Malan emphasizes.

“How you really learn how to produce a good film is to have an (experienced) editor who takes your script and rips it apart, for two years, every time, and then you eventually learn what does a good script look like. If you don’t have access to that sort of thing…you’re not going to learn. None of us learn how to do a good film by studying it; it doesn’t happen that way – it comes from experience and from being mentored by someone.”

POW, herself a qualified broadcast engineer, encourages African filmmakers to familiarize themselves with the “technical side” of filming.

“Don’t just direct and produce, but also learn how to shoot with the camera and how to record sound. Get your hands, and not just your mind, dirty! It’s empowering to learn how to use a camera, for example, and it makes you realize what goes into making a film, and makes you more appreciative of the creative side of filmmaking.”

“What I’ve noticed in the TV studios is that the filmmakers that come in have no idea how a film is put together. And that really limits them. I myself, because I know the technical side of things, I can go into the studio and produce and mix my film. This saves me a lot of money and time,” POW says.

Magubane’s advice to his African colleagues is simple: “Put yourself out there. Make sure you’re visible. Do your best to attend some of the international film festivals. This is where you can network with people who may in the future be willing to fund your next film.”

For Michelle Farris-Lewis, an American filmmaker who attended the Austin festival, Internet access is essential to modern-day filmmakers, be they based in the “Congo or London.”

“I encourage people to get on the websites, send out emails, get on MySpace; do whatever it is that you need to do. Get on YouTube – my film is on YouTube; I’ve had over 2, 000 hits of people I don’t know, haven’t seen and never will see! But they leave comments. The Internet is a viable part of promoting, especially on a shoestring budget.”

There’s always the chance, says Farris-Lewis, that “someone with influence will spot your work and will enjoy it and will offer you money for a future project.”

But Malan says many African filmmakers are hampered by the fact that they don’t have access to the Internet. Often, they live in areas where the supply of electricity is intermittent, at best.

Malan, nevertheless, has confidence in the future of filmmaking in Africa, because, she says, there’s an “abundance” of talent on the continent.

The chief problem at the moment, according to her, is that African filmmakers need mentors to be able to develop their art.

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