African film is enjoying a rare invitation to cinema’s top table with a film by French-Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, as the continent strives to satisfy an appetite for films made by Africans for Africans.
Haroun, who left Chad during the civil war, won plaudits for his autobiographical 1999 film “Bye Bye Africa” and has continued to make films about his homeland despite settling in France more than 30 years ago.
His latest film “Grigris” is one of 20 films in the contest for the Palme d’Or. It will be screened on Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival where he was invited to sit on the jury in 2011.
Although the filmmaker won the Cannes jury prize in 2010 for “A Screaming Man”, few Africans will have seen his films at the cinema.
Cinemas across the continent have in recent years fallen victim to a combination of lack of investment and the rise of television and DVDs, often pirated, as a preferred form of entertainment.
Apart from Nigeria and South Africa, which have their own domestic film industries, the continent suffers from a shortage of homegrown movies.
Ivorian actress Emma Lohoues, who scooped best actress awards at two international film festivals for her performance in Owell Brown’s 2010 romantic comedy “Le Mec Ideal”, believes many of the essential ingredients for a successful industry are already in place.
“Our cinema has a future with a wave of talented emerging actors and directors,” she said.
“All we need and which is badly missing is the support of the authorities,” she added.
Democratic Republic of Congo director Ronnie Kabuika dreams of the day when there might be a state-sponsored infrastructure for the industry in his country, perhaps as part of the ministry of culture.
“Those who try to produce things make do with what’s at hand but there is no support, no finance,” he said.
Many on the continent look with envy at the way films are financed in Morocco, a set-up modelled on the French system.
Government funding has made the country the envy of the continent with six million euros ($7.7 million) funding some 25 Moroccan films a year.
In Rwanda, it is hoped that a planned film commission will help the country move on from films made by foreigners about the 1994 genocide.
“We should dare to make films (that look at things) through our own eyes,” said filmmaker Eric Kabera who in 2001 collaborated with British filmmaker Nick Hughes on the first feature film about the genocide.
Movie makers say the success of the Nigerian film industry, known as “Nollywood”, shows that Africa can produce its own films and make a splash in the wider world.
Nigerian actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde was recently named by Time magazine as one of its most 100 influential people.
Mostly shot on video and rooted in the hard realities of daily lives blighted by violence and corruption, the films made over the last 20 odd years “have placed Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema”, said Nigerian director Mahmood Ali-Balogun.
“Nollywood is worth celebrating. It has done well for Nigeria and Africa…It has put Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema,” he said.
“It is about us, by us and for us…Nollywood has empowered Nigerians,” he added.
Older, poorer quality films known as “microwave” movies were being replaced with better productions, he added. “There is a lot of improvement these days,” he said
The success of “Nollywood” with its hundreds of films produced annually is also notable for the fact that it receives very little support. Despite that the industry was “viable and profitable” with stars that “take the public with them”, added Owell Brown.