Filme aus Afrika: FilmInitiativ's initiative to increase the distribution of African audio-visual productions

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When it comes to getting its film and television programmes seen outside Africa, the continent needs all the help it can get. Several events and initiatives have been launched in Europe to help people get a better understanding of African cultures and their global impact. For a short list click on the link here: This year, "Out of Europe XII" / 'Filme aus Afrika' is one of them; it is the largest African film festival organized in Germany. The festival set up by FilmInitiativ kicked off last week and runs from 20 to 30 September 2012; Balancing Act talked to its executives.

Who’s behind the organization?

FilmInitiativ Köln e.V. is an association of journalists, media educators and cineastes from Cologne in Germany. One of the group's main activity is the presentation of African films in Cologne and across Germany and a platform for African right holders to commercialize their work.  

The group was established in 1988, works as a collective and is aimed at people interested in cinematic art. It organizes film-screenings, tours around Germany, discussions and courses, but above all provide a platform for films not normally shown in commercial cinemas. Despite considerable obstacles and limited funds and human resources, the group presents films of cinematographic value and selected programs of cinematic art beyond Europe. In 1992 it presented the first Africa Film Festival “Out of Europe“, which celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this year.  

Ade Bantu Odukoya (Nigerian musician and patron of the Out of Europe XII festival) wrote: "Over the last two decades they have been trying to correct the distorted and cliché-ridden images of Africa, not by claiming to be experts or by trying to speak on behalf of Africans, but by creating a platform for African film. Filmmakers from the African continent and from the African diaspora have been invited to show their work. The dreams, fears and hopes of a complex, many-layered and multi-faceted continent, encompassing 54 countries, have come to the German public’s attention”.  

For once, the result has been a sort of dialogue of equals. Of course, it is not enough to put on a biennial African Film Festival and show a number of African films in between. Clearly, the films you see here need to find their way into mainstream cinemas in order to reach the general public. German television must be more open to African films too, not to help Africa, but to keep apace with the breath-taking rate of the continent’s development.  

Technical progress over the last ten years has been enormous, the democratic movements are unstoppable, the era of despots is over, the days of the corrupt are numbered. The people of Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa and Harare have laid their fears to rest. They now go out onto the streets and demand transparency and justice. Urban Africa has long since developed its own language and identity. It is freeing itself from the founding fathers of the independence movements. The new Africa is not desperately seeking recognition, but wants to be seen and respected as an equal – something it lays claim to without any ifs or buts. The new Africa will not be palmed off with development aid and hand-outs. Those days are over. The new trends are reflected in the “New African Cinema” productions which you will see and experience at the Out of Europe XII festival."  

“Following past film series on topics such as the anti-nuclear movement, Palestine, neo-fascism and images of Germany in cinema, this year, FilmInitiativ Köln is presenting a selection of films from Western Africa. This is as much a political choice as one of cinematic aesthetics... It is not only in politics that much of Europe is perceiving Africa as a blank spot on the map, in our movie theaters, too, we can barely make out an African voice... Africa itself, however, has an advanced, multi-faceted film production industry, which under infinitely difficult circumstances (funding, distribution, censorship) is bringing forth films of a broad topical spectrum. Addressing issues such as the struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism, criticism of outdated traditions, the urban-rural divide and class divisions, these films are extremely lively, full of suspense and of an extraordinary quality. They are diametrically opposed to much of what is shown at our cinemas in so far as they convey a simple immediate humanism that allows novel access to subjects and people.“  

The initiative's announcement dates back to June 1992. FilmInitiativ Köln presented a first series of events including 21 feature and documentary films from Western Africa at the Filmpalette cinema in Cologne. A further series featuring films from other African regions followed within half a year. The programme’s title 'Out of Europe' pointed out the ambition to present authentic images of Africa as opposed to the clichés widely portrayed in TV documentaries and feature movies like the romantic drama 'Out of Africa' (which is set within the milieu of white colonial society whereby Africa is serving merely as a scenic backdrop). 

Out of Europe was to show films originating in Africa rather than commenting on it, films in which Africans themselves reflect on their history, their everyday existence and the societal problems of their countries. From day one, FilmInitiativ Köln invited guests from various African states, such as the filmmakers Jean-Marie Teno from Cameroon and S. Pierre Yaméogo from Burkina Faso. Mamady Keïta from Guinea, percussionist and protagonist of the music documentary Djembéfola, played a post-screening concert at the civic centre Alte Feuerwache.

Sawadogo Saga of Burkina Faso’s national broadcasting corporation, who at the time completed an educational course at the   Deutsche Welle in Cologne, was invited to a discussion on filmmaking in Western Africa and pointed out that whoever wants to learn about the variety in African film making ought to visit his home town Ouagadougou. It is there, he added, that the biggest and globally most important African film festival, FESPACO (Festival Panafricain de Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou), had been taking place biennially since 1969.  

FilmInitiativ's partners followed the recommendation and visited FESPACO in Burkina Faso in spring 1993. The opening ceremony alone was overwhelming. It didn’t take place in a cinema but in the city’s biggest football stadium, gathering 40,000 spectators amidst live music and laser shows. The enthusiasm of the local moviegoers in the vast open-air theatres of Ouagadougou, the spectrum of films on the programme and the encounters with filmmakers from all over the continent inspired FilmInitiativ to produce a two-week long “sequel to the FESPACO“ in Cologne as early as December 1993. It showed 50 films under the title Out of Europe III. The programme featured the prize-winners of the original FESPACO and retrospectives on Ousmane Sembène and Safi Faye (Senegal), Gaston Kaboré (Burkina Faso) and Raoul Peck (Haiti) representing the diaspora. Guests included the filmmakers Fanta Régina Nacro from Burkina Faso, Ahmed Diop from Senegal and Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda from the Congo (at the time still called Zaire).  

From that point on, collaborators and friends of FilmInitiativ visited the Ouagadougou festival continually every two years, and in 1996 launched the Africa Film Festival in Cologne, running in each subsequent year. As FilmInitiativ started to visit other festivals specialised in African film making, some in Europe (Amsterdam, Milan, Leuven, Tarifa, Berlin and Frankfurt) and some in Africa (Tunis, Cairo and Durban), the Cologne festival soon grew to offer more than FESPACO’s prize-winning films. Both the quality and the extent of the Cologne festival programme increased and so did the interest of local visitors and visitors from other regions. 

The Filmpalette as well as the Kölner Filmhaus Cinema theaters quickly proved too small, and later editions of the festival took place in larger cinemas such as the Broadway (which sadly no longer exists), the OFF Broadway and the cinema of the Filmclub 813. Since 2008 the festival hub has become fixed at the Film forum of the Museum Ludwig, as it not only offers a large cinema with 260 seats but also provides a spacious foyer to accommodate information stands for African communities and sales stands for literature, music, art and culinary specialities.  

The 10th festival in 2008 saw 700 visitors attending the opening day alone, which is more than the first West African film series in 1992 counted over its running period. In 2010, the festival attracted 4,000 visitors, many of which had travelled from other cities and neighbouring countries. The biennial Cologne festival 'Out of Europe' has thus grown into the most comprehensive platform for African film making in Germany.  

FilmInitiativ further offered film series with a topical or country-specific focus. An early example of this is 'A week of remembrance: Ken Saro-Wiwa' in 1996. The extensive nine-day programme stretched beyond screenings to include readings and concerts, Nigerian theatre performances and an event at the University of Cologne with Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature. The series was organised in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, opposition politician, writer and filmmaker, who had been executed by Nigeria’s military regime in 1995 for criticising the environmental destruction of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta by international petroleum companies such as Shell. The programme was conceived in close cooperation with Nigerian musicians from Cologne such as Adé Bantu and Don Abi.  

Cooperation with African communities continued. In 1996, many Cameroonians from Cologne acted as extras in Jean-Marie Teno’s movie Clando about a refugee from Western Africa while the European part of the film was shot in various locations in Cologne with the support of FilmInitiativ. After the premiere of the feature Lumumba in 2002, Congolese living in Cologne and nearby conducted a discussion with the publicist Ludo de Witte from Leuven, who wrote a book revealing the involvement of the Belgian government in the murder of Congo’s first post-independence prime minister. On the occasion of Ghana’s 50th Independence Day celebrations in November 2007, FilmInitiativ showed a series produced in collaboration with the Ghana Union Cologne.  

As uprisings spread across North Africa in late 2010 and early 2011, FilmInitiativ decided to present the series Game Over and No More Fear with screenings of current features and documentaries from the affected regions. It thereby cooperated with the association “Helft Tunesien e.V.“, founded by Tunisians in exile. The January 2012 preview screening of the documentary 'Tahrir 2011', co-produced by the German public broadcasting institution WDR, marked the beginning of collaboration with the German-Egyptian association “Deutsch- Ägyptische Gesellschaft Köln“.  

There were dozens of Egyptian migrants amongst the over 300 spectators attending the film’s launch at the Filmforum. Their factual knowledge and guiding contributions to the post-film discussion presented the remaining public with a tangible impression of just how intensely Egyptians are engaged in forming the future of their country.  

For 20 years, the aim of FilmInitiativ in presenting new African films has remained consistent. The goal is to open our minds to different realities by showing authentic images and hearing stories told by Africans themselves. Director Sarah Maldoror, who presented her 1972 classic Sambizanga on the Angolan War of Independence at Out of Europe VI (Cologne, 2000), put it this way: “At the beginning of this third millennium, cinema is the most popular form of artistic expression worldwide... More than ever do we as Africans have to be present at this rendez-vous of give and take... What counts is our perspective, is to see ourselves through our own images.”  

This month, Cologne’s African film festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary, presenting Out of Europe XII with a jubilee programme of 85 feature and documentary films, political videos, shorts, experimental and animated films from 20 African countries - many of which are premieres in Germany- as well as 20 guests traveling in from Cairo, Casablanca, Dakar, Cape Town, Paris, Geneva, Vienna and Berlin. The 2012 festival is offering Cologne’s most comprehensive portrayal of contemporary African film making so far.  

To compile such a programme, members of FilmInitiativ have again visited the world’s most significant festival of African cinema, the FESPACO in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), as they have been doing biennially since 1993. The FESPACO’s 23rd edition took place in spring 2011 and its most important prize-winners are now present in Cologne.  The anniversary festival’s pre-programme, titled Africa goes Veedel  has counted more than 2100 visitors. The programme, organised by FilmInitiativ preceded and inaugurated the 20th anniversary of Cologne’s African film festival, and ran from the beginning of May to mid-September 2012. It offered 20 classics of African film in venues across 13 districts' towns.    

With an opening ceremony with live music, films and international guests, the festival will feature short films from Tanzania and South Africa, guests from Egypt, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Senegal and beyond, Congolese hip hop by Lopango Ya Banka, video clips by the Cairo media collective Mosireen and clips from the africologne theatre festival in Cologne, the launch of the organizer's website and database – and a wealth of surprises in store. Admission is free and access is provided anytime throughout the entire event.  

This year, the festival has also invited an unprecedented number of guests. As in earlier years, in-depth post-screening discussions will follow at the cinema, and the museum’s educational services are again offering their workshop on the ground floor to allow interested parties to continue talks within a smaller setting.  

For this year’s anniversary festival, the foyer of the Filmforum will again transform into a small African bazaar with sales of DVDs, CDs, art, books and information from Africa. African community organisations such as tunicare e.V., the Deutsch- Ägyptische Gesellschaft Köln, the Kenyan association Neema international from Bonn as well as the initiative Ingenieure ohne Grenzen (engineers without borders) will be offering information on their work.  

Various community members will be offering culinary treats from Africa in the foyer. The first weekend is dedicated to specialities from West Afrika (20 to 23 September) and the second to Eritrean dishes (26 to 29 September).  Year 2012 marks the 20-year anniversary not only of Cologne’s Africa Film Festival but also of the association Öffentlichkeit gegen Gewalt e.V. To honour the occasion, FilmInitiativ is collaborating with the association to present a four-part special series of Cologne premieres on racism and discrimination, including films from Germany, France and the USA.   In adding current features, documentaries, shorts and experimental films from North Africa to the festival programme, FilmInitiativ continues its cinematic portrayal of the societal upheavals and changes affecting the region.  

The last two years saw FilmInitiativ extend their festival visits to Tunis, Cairo, Tarifa, Rotterdam, Leuven and Berlin – and assess programmes of African cinema events from Zanzibar to Toronto and New York. Research resulted in a choice of hundreds of films, of which only the best were selected to make the Cologne anniversary programme. The weeks of viewing turned into a proverbial agony of choice amongst films of outstanding quality, produced against all political, technical and financial odds encountered in many African countries. Recent productions from North and South Africa made this more evident than ever.  

FilmInitiativ will continue to broaden the platform for such African perspectives – for perspectives that are aware of what is happening outside Europe and to which degree Europe is to be held responsible. The growing support of the festival's visitors is encouraging the group to pursue this goal despite numerous obstacles. 

 The group's aim is to create a 'Center For African Film' in Cologne over the next three years. This project is about to create a database and online presence which pools information and lends support to increase the distribution of African films in the context of cinematic and political education, in the three languages of German, French and English. Till now, nearly 500 African Films have been screened in Cologne with over 70 guests from 35 countries in Africa. 


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