Africa Film Festival 2019 - Migration and Citizenship Take Center Stage

Africans born and raised in Europe often go through great difficulties to acquire citizenship. Several of the features shown at the African Film Festival in Cologne, Germany highlighted this issue.

"I am sorting out my paperwork. That is why my residence card has expired," a baffled Brahim tells a police officer, who just arrested him. But the officer answers: "You are illegal, don't move, stay right there."

The fate of many Africans born and raised in Europe is told through the experience of Brahim in the short feature Timoura (Territories). The film directed by Azedine Kasri was shown at the 17th Africa Film Festival in Cologne, one of 75 features, documentaries, animations and short films shown in the German city.

Timoura tells the story of car mechanic Brahim, who was born to Algerian parents in France and raised there. Brahim has lost touch with his Algerian heritage. But when the police tell him he is living in France illegally it sets him on a path to rediscover his Algerian identity. Migration, citizenship, identity and fundamentalism were prominent themes at this year's festival. The themes were explored by a number of films using the story of Africans born and raised in Europe like Brahim who, despite living all their lives in Europe, are still not European enough in the eyes of their fellow citizens.

Anti-immigrant movements in Europe

In June, 73 far-right lawmakers from the European Parliament formed a bloc with the aim of curbing immigration and stop the spread of Islam. In France this agenda is being spearheaded by the far-right National Rally party. The frustration of the people targetted by the party is expressed by Brahim in Timoura when he tells the police officer: "I was born and raised here, how can I be illegal?"

Under French law children born in France of foreign parents must request French nationality when they reach adulthood and are not automatically granted citizenship.

It comes as no surprise that increasingly Africans are returning home. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it helped a record 92,000 people return to Africa voluntarily in 2016.

Director Coralie Majouga explores the issue of reverse migration is her film Au Revoir Paris. When their father moves back to Africa, Mathis and Antoine know it is only a matter of time before they have to go too. The two young boys who are used to life in France, however dread the prospect.

"I hear in Africa the spiders are as big as your head. Kids have to sell peanuts to survive. Sometimes a blackout means people go to bed at 4 pm, otherwise they trip over each other in the dark," one of them tells his friends.

Au Revoir Paris addresses the subjects of migration and African stereotypes through the eyes of two young children who have internalized negative images of Africa. In the end, though, the two children realize that Africa is probably not all bad. "We will be okay," Antoine reassures his brother, holding him close.

Jacqueline Nsiah, program director for the Africa Film Society in Ghana, oversees an African film platform at the Goethe-Institut as project manager. International film festivals mean that "African films don't necessarily have to be seen only by Africans but can reach wider European and American audiences," she says.

The variety of films at the 17th edition of the festival reflects the growing diversity of film on Africa. "The only thing they have in common is that they are made by people who identify as African," says Nsiah.

African diaspora dominant at the film festival

A great number of films set in Africa are produced by Africans living abroad. Bonn-based DW journalist Mantegaftot Sileshi Siyoum, a contributor to this years film festival, says there are reasons. Filmmakers in his native Ethiopia get zero government support. "If I want to buy a RED camera, Ethiopian customs will consider this a luxury item and impose huge taxes," he says.

Siyoum says he is luckier than his counterparts in Ethiopia. "A lot of my friends who want to produce short movies have scripted it but cannot produce because they have no money." To make it worse, producers based in Ethiopia are only interested in films that have immediate commercial value, not short films or features.

Read more: Making movies in Africa: Breaking conventions

Siyoum's film, King of the Street, shot in his private time, is about a boy who lives on the street and wants to be treated like a king. The child is however, ignored by society, The filmmaker sees a parallel with how filmmakers are treated in Ethiopia.

Independent filmmakers like Siyoum are left to grapple with marketing and distribution all by themselves. "When I participate in festivals, a lot of other festivals get in touch and ask if I want to show my film, so it helps with marketing," he says.

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