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Cameroon’s Sleepy Film Industry Waking Up

Cameroon's film industry has witnessed slow growth, in contrast to countries like its neighbor, Nigeria, where the movie market is booming. Experts say a main problem is getting financing. But the number of productions has risen with increased affordability of digital video equipment. Film production in Cameroon witnessed a significant surge last year in sharp contrast to stagnation a decade ago. More than 20 Cameroonian movies were shown at theaters nationwide and aired by local television stations.

Elsewhere, independent video productions are skyrocketing and filmmaking houses are sprouting as more young producers, screenwriters and actors make their debut in the industry.

Experts say there is every reason to believe that the movie business -- long-dormant -- is waking up.

Mfuh Ebenezer was the first Cameroonian to put a film on video. That was in 1995 and was titled "Love has Eyes." At Christmas he released another, called "Cycle of Trauma," which has already sold thousands of copies.

He says the industry has come a long way, "I really think we are on a very, very strong path and we're finally taking off. A vision is being mapped out. So beginning from "Love Has Eyes" in 1995 to "Cycle of Trauma" in 2008, a lot has changed in terms of technical know-how in the industry. We have improved a lot on the sound quality, on the acting quality, on the picture quality and on the story quality."

But observers warn the current optimism and increased production could usher in mediocrity as many rush into the industry without any formal training.

In Bamenda, close to the border with Nigeria, hundreds of production houses have emerged. But they run on thin budgets. Many say the quality of their productions would considerably improve if certain hurdles could be cleared, like the problem of funds to pay actors and promote their work.

Some actors comment:

- I've starred in so many movies. Some are still in the cupboard. It's very discouraging to spend your time, your energy to act and at the end of the day it just stays there.

- I work on a really [tight] budget. My family is like supporting me. But people don't want their colleagues to grow in the industry because they have a kind of jealous mind.

- The government is just sleeping.

- There is no board, no administration that governs local movie-making. Everybody has a production center and it's difficult to come together and then we do not have people who can promote the industry.

Among filmmakers' complaints are difficult distribution channels, piracy, limited number of projection halls and a poor movie-going culture.

But Ebenezer says the greatest challenge facing the emerging industry is training personnel, "Finances are just part of it because if they give you one billion and you don't have the expertise, you'll produce a bad film. The real problem is getting personnel of the industry trained and once we have good experts, with very little money they can do very good films. So I thought to solve the problem, I needed to create a school. That's why I linked up with the New York Film Academy and created KM Professional Film Academy which has been existing now for one year. Currently, I am training fifteen film directors and when they come out, I'm sure they will direct very good films.

KM is the only institution that trains filmmakers in Cameroon to be recognized by the government.

Yet, hope abounds. Lately, the government has supported the organization of film festivals created by professional filmmakers' associations. Further assistance has come from the British Council, and the French Cultural Center. Many are hoping the soaring number of productions and improvements in quality will begin to attract sponsors and more government involvement.

Cameroonian filmmakers say now is the time to inject originality into a budding industry that's being greatly influenced by neighboring Nigeria's flourishing "Nollywood."

Mfuh Ebenezer admits that Nigeria has made remarkable advances and is far ahead of Cameroon in the film industry. But he discourages the idea of producers emulating Nollywood productions, "The influence has actually been quite great. We're still virgin. I think it's rather good to start off a Cameroonian film industry because our ideas are still very new instead of partnering with people who are already recycling, he says."

Cameroon is commonly mentioned as being an Africa in miniature having over 250 ethnic groups and a vastly diverse culture. Observers say filmmaking potential is huge.