Fespaco 2011: Creating strategies to distribute African films globally

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Fespaco, the ‘Biennale of African Cinema’ took place in Ouagadougou for a week from 22nd February to 5 March 2011.  Participants at Fespaco talked about how to introduce strategies to be implemented so that African films could conquer the international market. African productions still only represent about 3% of the cinema market globally said M. Michel Ouédraogo, Fespaco’s representative. At the recent Cannes festivals, Africa was almost a no-show. Sylvain Beletre summarises some of the issues raised at the Festival.

In theory, improving African cinema’s status is simple but the task is difficult for local industry players. Key strategies start with a strong, unified African cinema family without borders: Africans need to get together to build African film synergies and super productions. Film makers need to share the best actors across different countries, i.e. if a Burkinabe film maker wants to distribute a film in Nigeria, South Africa or in Mali, he needs to recruit actors in those countries.

Launching proper international film marketing campaigns to promote films in and outside of Africa, creating a pan African star system, setting up brand new, dedicated studios are all important factors to boost this industry, in cooperation with African TV stations and Cinema theatre distribution network. Lastly, advertising, product placement and sponsorship from large companies can also give birth to a growing industry.

The second aspect is the role of governments. Nations can generate substantial revenues out of the film industry. A first barrier is censorship and what governments allow film-makers to release. Improving audiovisual teams’ know how, equipments, infrastructure and proper film schools are other positive options. Setting up the right legislation, providing funds, grants and tax incentives across all African countries would also be ideal.

Lastly, distribution needs further measures: increasing the number of cinema theatres and open air locations across Africa with entry tickets set at very low price, setting up legal affordable DVD and VoD sales’ channels, and making sure that TV stations have a broadcast quota of local productions are also on the map in several countries.

Over the last 20 years the emphasis of the Fespaco has shifted and a new generation of filmmakers, heavily influenced by the success of Nollywood, has moved away from a ‘cinema d’auteurs’, bankrolled by the French government or the EU. African cinema now starts to be a legitimate commercial venture, and African business is supporting home-grown filmmakers to take advantage of low-cost digital video.

As well as being the showcase for African cinema and television, Fespaco also featured conferences, debates, master classes, programmes of free music concerts and a huge market promoting local audio visual content.

This year a total of 18 features were in competition from some 11 countries, with genres ranging from musical to historical epic.  Souleymane Cisse, the veteran African director urged the new generation of African filmmakers to steer for independence from European funding.

"Today young people have a ‘miserabilist’ approach to film, of beggars who must plead every time for financing from Europe," he said."The new generation of African filmmakers must not see themselves as cursed, they must see that their duty is to help people move forward," he said.

Cisse said winning Fespaco awards were a blessing for the exposure they gave him but something of a curse for its burden of expectation."It gives you respect, for all eternity you will be recognised as a winner of the Etalon de Yennenga," he said.

"(But) from the moment you are carrying the Etalon, you no longer have the luxury of mistakes, you cannot fail. It's a heavy distinction to carry, other winners will tell you."
"It gives some international recognition. The titles helped a little bit to obtain financing for other films, but not as much as we hoped. It's not like winning the Palme d'or at Cannes!" he said.

Despite efforts like Fespaco, African films still struggle to obtain financing and global recognition, he said. However, "I live off my films so I can't complain in that regard, when you look at the realities of the continent."

"Pégase" (Pegasus) from Mohamed Mouftakir (Morocco) won the l'Etalon d'or de Yennenga (Golden Stallion of Yennenga), a reward all the more important as it makes Morocco the second country, next to Mali, to hold the largest number of Golden Stallion of Yennenga. "Pegasus" tells the story of a young girl, Rihanna (Saâdia Ladib) locked in a psychiatric hospital, the victim of a trauma that makes her believe that a demon wants to kill her.

Over the event, Morocco was presented as a very active country that produces 15 to 20 long and around 100 short films per year and holds 52 film festivals, according to ‘Centre cinématographique marocain’ (CCM) director, Noureddine Sail. Its industry is supported by the government with tax incentives, a budget of 5M Euros per year and 5% of advertising revenues injected to future productions since 1997. Morocco generates about USD 60 M out of its film industry.

The best actor award was granted to Sylvestre Amoussou (Benin), director of "A step forward, the bottom of corruption" (Un pas en avant, les dessous de la corruption).  Also present at this edition, Algeria was particularly distinguished through two productions. The first, “Voyage à Alger” (Journey to Algiers) from Abdelkrim Bahloul, won the Best Screenplay award and Best Actress award for Samia Meziane. The second, "Essah" (a musical film signed by Dahmane Ouzid), received the award for best poster.  For the quality of its implementation, the short film ''Metaphor'' from Cameroonian cassava Lionel Meta received a special mention.

For the first time, Fespaco organizers have launched a competition for African cinema schools including South Africa, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Benin.
Altogether, 16 directors shared 19 prizes worth a total of 55 million CFA francs.

The next, 23rd edition of FESPACO is scheduled to take place from February 23 to March 2, 2013.

To watch videos of the Fespaco press conference, in French: click here