opinionBy Christopher Fennell and Florence Stuart-Leach
London — For 10 days at the start of November, London will be treated to 70 African films as well as music nights, workshops and Q&As with leading directors.
In these difficult economic times, when governments across Europe are withdrawing public funding from cultural events and institutions, Film Africa 2012 arrives in London as a privileged venture.
Supported by the Royal African Society and London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Film Africa 2012 runs from November 1-11, offering 10 days of 70 African films, leading film-maker Q&As, free professional workshops, and 9 African music nights. The UK's largest annual festival of African cinema and culture is hosted by the Hackney Picturehouse, with screenings also at the BFI Southbank, Rich Mix in Shoreditch, The Ritzy in Brixton, Screen on the Green in Islington, and The South London Gallery.
Since 2008 and the launch of the inaugural London African Film Festival - rebranded as Film Africa in 2011 - London has celebrated the influence of a continent on a city, and insisted on the relevance of Africa to the UK and to the world.
As the festival programme points out, the African-born residents of London include: 105,000 Nigerians, 80,000 South Africans, 53,000 Zimbabweans, 44,000 Somalis, 39,000 Ghanaians 25,000 Libyans, 18,000 Mauritians, 15,000 Kenyans, and 12,000 Eritreans. Research shows that the African diaspora and Black British communities in London identify closely with both their original 'homes' and with London. Film Africa presents this duality on the cinema screen.
Film in Africa
There has never been a greater interest in African film. The thriving Nigerian video film industry, Nollywood - now the second largest film industry in the world after Bollywood in terms of number of films produced annually - has revolutionised film production and distribution on the continent. The accessibility of relatively low-cost, high-quality digital equipment has meant that Nigerian filmmakers have been able to maintain financial control over their films without need for outside investment.
Despite criticisms of the video format, conventional storytelling, and the 'cash and carry' pattern of production, Nollywood films have nevertheless put African themes in African scenes on African screens by offering the possibility of self-reliance in African creativity. Film Africa 2012 confronts issues that are not entirely specific to Africa, but that are explored from a uniquely African perspective.
Africa is not a single, monolithic entity, however, and nor are its films. Alongside the distinctive energy of Nollywood there are also the unique flavours of African films from country to country. To demonstrate this, Film Africa gives special attention to certain African countries; this year it is South Africa, with 17 South African films scheduled.
The programme comprises of fictions, documentaries, and shorts, covering all aspects of the country: from victimisation and its inspirational overcoming, surfing and coming of age, the psychological fallout of Apartheid, music and creativity, the contemporary struggles of gay people, the recent xenophobic riots, football and journeys of discovery, and the power of social movements to hold the government to account.
This year, co-directors Lindiwe Dovey and Namvula Rennie are particularly eager to highlight the increasingly transnational nature of African film, both in its narrative content and its production values. In one of the major programming strands - Continental Crossings - the films have been chosen to inspire a vision of a global Africa connected to the Western and the non-Western world. Like the London Film Festival, Film Africa 2012 is divided into separate thematic focuses: in addition to Continental Crossings there is, Elections and Democracy, Mama Africa, Spotlight on Sexualities, Sport, and Public Space and Citizen Journalism.
Lights, camera, action
The opening night film, Nairobi Half Life, is an unlikely collaboration between leading German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) and rising Kenyan film talent David Tosh Gitonga who will introduce the film. Other notable UK premieres include: The Education of Auma Obama, a portrait of the Kenyan half-sister of US president Barack Obama who introduced him to his Kenyan roots; the multi-award winning Call Me Kuchu, a devastating tribute to the Ugandan gay activist David Kato; and Sons of the Clouds, which explores the refugee camps after the colonisation of Western Sahara starring Javier Bardem. Film
Africa 2012 will close with a screening of Mama Africa, a heartfelt documentary about Miriam Makeba - one of the most outspoken opponents of Apartheid who is also affectionately known as the Empress of African song - directed with the transnational and global consciousness of Mika Kaurismäki.
In the tradition set up at Film Africa 2011, the festival will continue to increase awareness of female African film-makers and the representation of women in African film. Film Africa 2012 foregrounds women and their own vision of the future, because without women, these films cannot accurately indicate how far societies have come towards improved living conditions for all.