27 February 2017

Africa: 'Moonlight' Success Stirs Hope for African Cinema

Photo: Google
Moonlight movie.

"Moonlight's" surprise best picture win at this year's Oscars stunned audiences across the globe and silenced critics of the Academy's lack of diversity. In Africa, the low-budget film has fueled expectations for the continent's own film industry, as the biggest cinema festival Fespaco gets underway in Burkina Faso.

This year's 25th edition of the bi-annual Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) got off to a rousing start on Saturday night, with a high-powered performance from Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy.

Yet not even the melodic tones of Blondy could dampen the excitement, not about Fespaco, but another film festival across the globe--the Oscars-- that grabbed the limelight for at last recognising black actors and filmmakers, after a two-year drought.

"It was really exciting when Mahershala won the first award for the night. I was just really, really excited about that," Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, the Director of the Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, told RFI by phone from Lagos on Monday.

The climax came when Moonlight was eventually awarded Best Picture after La La Land was initially declared the winner.

"When Moonlight won I was excited for two reasons: one, because of its story, and second, the fact this was a low-budget film. It's not a huge US budget film, it's a 1.5 budget film that has actually won the Oscars for Best Picture, so for us in Africa, it shows a lot of hope."

Anyiam-Osigwe has a point. In a landscape where African filmmakers struggle to get distribution and cinema houses often shut down, Moonlight's story of a young African American growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami came as a welcome reminder of what talent can achieve.

Organisers in Burkina Faso however are not willing to let the Oscars steal all the limelight. Fespaco, says Jean Yves Nana, Director of the Ouagadougou Cinema (Ougadougou is widely considered the cinema capital of Africa) is also a great window for diversity.

"Fespaco provides an opportunity for Africa's different cultures to come together in one place and to share the same values, and the beauty of Africa," he told RFI on Monday.

More than 100,000 revellers are expected to attend the ten-day fest in the Ouagadougou capital - the first since the overthrow of former leader Blaise Compaoré in 2014, and the first since last year's terror attacks on various hotels and restaurants.

"Whatever the language spoken, whatever the country, everyone is invited," says Nana.

Conspicuously absent however from the 164 films in competition, is Nigeria. This is surprising given that Nollywood's film industry churns out at least 2,000 new films per year, and is the world's third largest movie industry after Hollywood and Bollywood.

The problem, argues Anyiam-Osigwe, is snobbism.

"Fespaco has to embrace non-French speaking cinema as well, they find it very difficult to embrace the other African cinema like from non-French speaking countries, so you find that a lot of the films that may be popular in South Africa or Nigeria don't actually make the cut," she says.

However Nana brushes aside such comments, arguing that they deflect attention away from the essence of what Fespaco is all about: an attempt by Africans to tell their own story:

"The history of Africa has long been told by other people, notably ethnologists, ethnographers, who gave an account of the reality in Africa. And we said to ourselves, that's our role. What they were depicting wasn't us. So we're going to use this tool to show to the world who we are and what we're about."

Artists like Apolline Traoré, a laureate from 2013, are certainly doing just that.

Her film Frontières, or Borders, wowed the audience at Saturday's launch, and tells the story of four women who take a road trip across the continent. With its subtle melange of feminism and migration, it's also informing audiences about the challenges of travelling in Africa, not just to Europe, and is a favourite to clinch the top Etalon d'Or award or Golden Stallion.

"Africans are reclaiming their own imagery," continues Nana. "It's cinema told by Africans for Africans."

For Burkina Faso's president Marc Roch Kaboré that cinema should consolidate the values shared by all Africans. On condition, warns Onyiam-Osigwe, that it moves forward: "Fespaco has been exciting in the beginning in pushing African cinema forward, but then it stayed there. Now it needs to go further."

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