06 March 2014

Black African Cinema and the Legacy Colonialism

The failure to build a black African film industry during the 1970s and into the 1980s--despite the valiant efforts of individual film-makers and a number of governments--is hardly surprising in view of the fact that modern industry of any kind in Africa dates only from World War II when, as John Iliffe points out in 'The Emergence of African Capitalism' (London, Macmillan, 1983, pp. 64-65), 'several circumstances came together to change the old pattern of exported raw materials and imported manufactures': colonial governments seeking to diversify their economies, local European settlers aiming for greater autonomy and foreign firms seeking commercial advantages. As late as 1950 in Nigeria, which was later to become something of an economic giant in black African terms, Iliffe notes (p. 65) that the manufacturing sectors still provided 'only 0.45 per cent of GNP, (the smallest proportion of any country producing statistics).' To the problem of late capitalism was added that of foreigner control: since the initial industrialisation occurred under colonial rule, early industrial enterprises tended to be owned by foreign capital. All Third World film industries have been created by indigenous capital attracted by the profits to be derived from catering to the entertainment needs of the new audience composed of those drawn into the cash economy by urban industrialisation and the rural exodus.

But black Africa, coming late to industrialisation, missed out on the boom which, in India and Egypt for example, was occasioned by World War II speculation. In these instances cinema came to be seen as an excellent investment for undeclared profits from the illegitimate economy. In black Africa, however, though subsequent programmes aimed at giving indigenous control of foreign firms certainly enriched local elites in countries like Nigeria and Zaire, there have been far more lucrative and less speculative outlets for reinvestment than a nascent film industry. The industrial infrastructure for cinema--studios, sound and editing facilities, laboratories--is therefore almost completely lacking in black Africa, with the privately owned Cinafric studios in Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta) standing as virtually the sole realisation of the commonly held capitalist dream of establishing local production facilities as a prelude to venturing forth onto the international film scene. But Ouagadougou was a paradoxical location for Cinafric (as for most of francophone black African's cinema organisations) since Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries and possesses barely a dozen cinemas for its five million inhabitants.

The factors which go into shaping cultural production in black Africa constitute only partial grids, each of which implies a different set of divisions. Though traditional beliefs persist, the varying penetration of Islam and Christianity tends to differentiate the North from the South--Muslim Niger, for example from Congo or Zaire. Traditions of capitalist development, in contrast, make a division between East and West. In West Africa, entrepreneurs emerged largely from artisanship and trade, whereas in East Africa they have tended to come, as Iliffe suggests (p. 67), 'through the straddling process of western education and modern-sector employment.' This finds its reflection in cinema to the extent that there is no equivalent in East Africa to the individual initiatives, backed by local capital, which have led to the production of fictional feature films in Nigeria and Ghana. There is an extensive and well-organised production and distribution of films in East Africa, through the Kenyan Institute of Mass Communication, for example. But all this local production is of documentaries serving government educational and agricultural programmes even in 1980s remained an expression of official views and ambitions: there have been no initiatives for privately funded features. Of course, the most important set of divisions in black Africa is that deriving from colonialism, which even after 25 years of formal independence continues to tie states--and in particular their Western-educated elites--to the former colonial capitals of Europe--London, Paris, Brussels.

European influences on the development of cinema--from the efforts of Belgian missionaries in Zaire to the traditions of 'neutral' informational documentary in anglophone Africa--continued into the 1980s. It was the Catholic organization OCIC (Organisation Catholique Internationale du Cinéma et de l'Audiovisuel) which in the 1980s had done most to bring African film-making to European attention, as evidenced by the series, Cinémas d'Afrique noire (edited by Victor Bachy and published by OCIC in collaboration with L'Harmatt in Paris in five volumes to the end of 1984), and undoubtedly given many young African film makers an orientation towards Europe. The lack of post-production facilities in black Africa means the most films are finished in Europe, which not only increases enormously the cost of African production but also cannot fail to influence the attitudes of film-makers. But December 1980 did see an attempt by certain African states to break free from the most highly developed of these foreign shaping influences, with the ending at their insistence of the system of aid to francophone African film-makers through the French Ministère de la Coopération. This remarkable seventeen-year example of 'enlightened neo-colonialism' was the main force behind the development of film-making in the fourteen states of what was previously French West and Equatorial Africa. For example, 125 of the 185 films of all kinds made between 1963 and 1975 received Cooperation technical and/or financial assistance, as suggested Jean Rene Debrix, in an interview in Guy Hennebelle and Catherine Ruelle (eds), Cinéastes d'Afrique noire (Paris, CinémAction, no 111 and, L'Afrique Littéraire et Artistique no 49, 1978, p 153). The method of finance, through the purchase, at a larger than normal fee, of the non-commercial distribution rights in the film by the French ministry, was quite separate from the commercial film distribution system in francophone black Africa, itself controlled until the 1970s by a French commercial duopoly. The result of the Coopération scheme was the production of a great number of films which would not otherwise have been made, but these were ghettoised in Africa (finding showings only in French cultural centres), and more accessible in Paris (through the ministry's archive) than in Africa. The scheme did little to bring African film-making to African popular audiences, but it has given francophone Africa a tradition of personal 'art' cinema, often only tenuously rooted in the specificities of the maker's national culture and the demands of a mass audience, which persisted into the 1980s, long after the cessation of the system.

The cultural importance attached to film by the French Ministère de la Coopération also served to bring cinema to the attention of francophone African governments, so that initiatives to support film-making are stronger in, say, Senegal or Burkina Faso than in Nigeria. But the problems of film-makers struggling to create commercially viable film production remain the same throughout black Africa and point to the need for government assistance in such matters as the regulation of the import and distribution of foreign films, the reduction of taxes on cinema admission (set at extremely high levels by most colonial administrations), the establishment of a national ticketing system (which alone would ensure producers a fair return on local distribution), production assistance at home and promotion abroad. But film fits awkwardly into the state's institutional priorities; it cannot be seen as a governmental achievement in modernisation (like the building of a dam or industrial complex), nor is it an aspect of traditional culture to be promoted internationally along with, say, local carpet making or rural handicrafts. For African rulers, usually Western-educated and always sensitive to the image of their country abroad, a speculatively financed local film production designed for the mass audience would be the last type of product to be advertised abroad, while a film which looked critically at local society would be simply intolerable to them. On the rare occasions when Third World governments have become culturally involved with film--as in India with the National Film Development Corporation--the result has unusually been rather like the efforts of the French Ministère de la Coopération: the creation of a hybrid product--part local, part Westernised--which no longer corresponds to local audience taste.

One area in which international organisations such as UNESCO and the Paris-based Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique can make an unambiguously positive contribution is through support for events and organisations allowing African film-makers to meet to exchange views, see each other's films and debate issues. Africa has two long-established biennial film festivals which continued to prosper into the 1980s, the JCC (Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage), established in Tunis in 1966 and holding its tenth festival in 1984, and FESPACO (Festival Panafricaine de Ougadougou) established in 1969 and celebrating its ninth gathering in 1985. These two have now been joined by a third festival, this time in anglophone East Africa MOGPAFIS (Mogadishu Pan-African Film Symposium) which held meetings in the capital of Somalia in 1981 and 1983. These festivals have provided a crucial context for members of the professional organization of African film-makers, FEPACI (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes). Established in 1970 and granted observer status at the Organisation of African Unity, FEPACI has continued to be an active force through the efforts of its individual members, though the congress held in Ouagadougou in February 1985 was the first for a decade. Meanwhile the institutional inertia of FEPACI prompted two complementary initiatives in 1981: L'Oeil Vert, a group of black African film-makers interested by the possibility of collective film-making, and CAC (Comité Africain des Cinéastes) a Paris-based distribution organisation headed by the exiled Mauritanian film-maker, Med Hondo.

The 1980s were a time of enforced reflection for African film-makers, faced with the fact that fifteen years of struggle did not lead to the establishment of a film industry anywhere in black Africa. A major statement of their position is to be found in the manifesto issued after a meeting held in Niamey in March 1982. Of particular interest are the five general principles, reprinted in Guy Hennebelle (ed.), Cinéastes d'Afrique noire (Paris, CinémAction no. 26, 1983, pp 168-172), which underlie the various propositions put forward:
  1. developments in production must be linked to those in the sectors of exhibition, import and distribution of films, technical infrastructure and professional training;
  2. the intervention of the state is needed to promote and protect private and public investment;
  3. measures to promote cinema are not viable on a purely national level but need to have a regional and inter-African dimension;
  4. future developments in African cinema will need to be made in collaboration with television institutions;
  5. finance for developments in cinema can be found within cinema itself, in the receipts from the showing of foreign films.
The discussions held at Carthage in 1984 continued in a similar vein, drawing up a balance sheet of developments since the festival was established in 1969 and setting out to consider in detail the impact (or lack of impact) of the various resolutions passed at earlier conferences. In a lucid and informative paper presented at Carthage, Ferid Boughedir traced 'The Evolution of Stratefies for the Viability of National Cinemas in Africa from 1967 to 1984' ('De l'ldeal a la Pratique: L'Evolution des Strategies pour la Viabilite des Cinemas Nationaux en Afrique de 1967 a 1984’, conference paper presented at the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage, 1984). Taking as his starting point the definition of distribution as the key sector of the film industry made by Tahar Cheriaa, the founder of the Carthage Film Festival, in 1967, Boughedir looks back at the African film-makers' initial cry for total nationalization.

Seeing the crucial problems as foreign control of distribution, national markets too small to support a national cinema and the failure to return money taken from cinema in taxation to foster production, film-makers of the late 1960s and early 1970s placed their reliance on state control. But the ensuing years have shown the limitations of this approach. National film corporations remain vital to control import of foreign films and to regulate the domestic market, but have generally had little positive impact as production organisations: new in the 1980s is the respect offered by African film-makers to private producers.

The ideal of film common markets linking regional groups of countries has also proved difficult to realise. In 1981 CIDC (Consortium Interafricain de Distribution Cinématographique) came into operation after years of patient effort, taking into African hands for the first time film import and distribution in the fourteen states of francophone black Africa, where it had previously been controlled by a succession of French-owned companies. The aim was to create a system which would both allow the commercial showing of African films to the African mass audience and, with the profits from the screenings of foreign films, support a parallel production organisation, CIPRO Films (Centre Interafricain de Production de Films). As Boughedir points out, things have not gone smoothly:
  • most states did not reform their tax structures to allow the common market to come properly into operation;
  • most did not pay their contributions to CIDC;
  • many national cinema organisations saw distribution purely as a commercial operation and were uninterested in a cultural role (such as that of finding an audience for African films);
  • many exhibitors refused to show African films (though some of those which were properly distributed achieved remarkable commercial success);
  • the lack of national ticketing systems prevented the monitoring and control of the market.
By 1984 the CIDC, which in any case had only 50 African films among the 1,200 it distributed (that is, barely four per cent) had lost the confidence of African film-makers and its operation and come virtually to a halt, leaving the market vulnerable again to US films distributed through a Swiss-registered company, SOCOPRINT, which has shown no interest in handling films made by Africans.

[The foregoing was extracted and slightly edited from an essay by Roy Armes entitled ‘Black African Cinema in the Eighties,’ originally published in Screen, Vol. 26, Nos. 3-4, May-August, 1985, pp. 60-73. For other takes on African cinema, see 'Neo-Colonialism in Mambety's Hyenas,' and 'African Aesthetics in the films of Ousmane Sembene,' both available on TV Multiversity.]

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