New Swedish- South African co-pro film will mock the clichés of African poverty
Dispelling the stereotypes of Africa, filmmaker Junaid Ahmed is to film a co-production with Sweden with a story line that straddles both Africa and Europe. The film is a co-production between Sweden and South Africa, and a bulging budget of R24m.
Ahmed spoke about the film and the challenges facing African filmmakers in making it internationally. Stockholm, Zululand is about the Swedish auditors who unexpectedly visit the small town of Stockholm, Zululand, to see how their development aid is being spent.
The townsfolk decide to create a facade of clichéd African poverty. The dangerous bluff is tested to breaking point when roguish local slacker Moses falls for Swedish Klara, but love and Stockholm win out in the end. The film will be shot in February (2012). In this interview he speaks to The New Age about the state of the film industry in the country and where it is headed.
Madala Thepa (MT): If I heard you right the other day at the NFVF offices, you alluded to the fact that there is no international interest for African stories unless they are tied with a “foreign” slant or unless there is an explicit international orientation to it – why do you think that is?
Junaid Ahmed (JA): No, I was not saying there is no international interest in African stories. Rather what I was saying is that my visits to various international film forums and platforms (like film festivals or film finance markets) have revealed that there continue to be stereotypes and racist perceptions of Africa – that the continent is the begging bowl of the world, mired in poverty, misery and violence.
So these perceptions impact on how international film producers, financiers and other film role-players respond to working with or participating in film projects in Africa.
And if they get involved, it is on their terms, money being king. They want to exert their own influence in terms of all aspects of the filmmaking process and especially regarding the narrative.
Therefore we note that the narratives of the few films that have been produced by international studios or producers are shaped and informed by colonial, racist and stereotype perceptions of Africa.
I was advocating that a greater responsibility lies with African producers and directors, that when they have the opportunity to attend international film festivals, conferences and finance markets, they actively engage with key international film role players in addressing these myopic views of the continent. But that is not enough.
MT: So do you think perhaps that a narrow definition of “local content” has restricted South Africa’s ability to engage with international partners?
JA: As African filmmakers we have to also explore and develop new strategies as to how to engage with this international film fraternity. Through experience I know it’s difficult to convert some of the “old hands” – the die-hard veterans of the international film industry, especially senior studio representatives, producers and financiers.
So my approach has been, how do we get these people interested in Africa, in African stories and convince them that working and filming in Africa is a good thing, that it is mutually beneficial to all concerned?
One of my strategies is to develop stories that straddle, or are set, in two continents. So in the present feature film that I am developing, called Stockholm, Zululand, the story deals with the issue of funding for African projects and while it addresses some serious social and political issues, I chose to do it as a romantic comedy set in Sweden and South Africa.
This is also based on my own experiences as a social activist trying to raise funding for African NGO projects, especially from Scandinavian countries.
What I found was that international filmmakers were then really interested in working with me. They saw my project as a fresh take on the romantic comedy genre and also a fresh narrative within the comedy genre.
What also interested them was how this project will be a true co-production, using all the best that both the Scandinavian and South African worlds could offer, including cast and crew, and the impact of both these countries’ culture in the narrative and filmmaking process.
So what I was alluding to is not that there is no interest internationally for African stories, rather racist perceptions of Africa have shaped and informed how the international film community relates to African filmmakers and how these perceptions therefore do not make them seriously engage with us.
Now my strategy is to develop stories from Africa that include some international aspect in order to draw international interest. I find also that the best way to engage with racist and colonial perceptions about Africa is by working with people in order to educate them.
MT: About co-productions, do you ever see the tensions between cultural and economic objectives? Are there cultural benefits or it is just a pooling of financial resources?
JA: It has become difficult to get financing for African films. There is almost no private equity interest.
There is limited state funding, especially in other parts of Africa. So the lack of financing hinders the progress of African film. And often when we make films our standards are compromised due to the lack of funds. This is the perennial problem that has beset the African filmmaker.
So, I find that by engaging with the international community of filmmakers there is great value in co-production work. Everybody is feeling the impact of the international economic downturn and film has suffered severely. This is evidenced by disastrous box office returns and the downscaling of investor interest in film.
The benefits of co-production as in my experience of working with a Swedish co-producer with my present project are as follows: the ability to pool financial resources from both countries, access to my Swedish co-producer’s government’s incentives and subsidies, my international co-producer is able to access reputable international sales agents and distributors for the project – something that has stifled growth in African films internationally.
Another important aspect is that through the co-production I am also able to access Scandinavian markets and audiences. Also because of my co-producer’s work in other European countries – especially in Germany and France – my project now has access to third markets. There are incredible cultural and educational benefits in working on co-productions.
For African filmmakers, co-productions also extend the possibilities of future work with your international co-producer in the international arena. This allows you to get recognition in the international community and therefore substantially increases the opportunity of accessing interest (finance and otherwise) for future solo project without an international co-producer.