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close this bookThe Courier N° 126 - March - April 1991 - Dossier: AIDS - The Big Threat / Country Report: Burkina Faso (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentFilm industry takes off in Southern Africa

Film industry takes off in Southern Africa

by Chris MclVOR

There are a total of 37 cinema theatres in the whole of Zimbabwe. Most of these are owned by two companies, the Rainbow and Kine corporations, which are based in South Africa. On the entertainment page in the national newspapers which regularly advertise the films on offer, you will search in vain for a film which is not produced in either the USA or the UK. In the entire history of film in post-independence Zimbabwe only three African productions have ever been shown on the commercial circuit. At the same time, because there is no local distributor of films in Zimbabwe itself, features shown in the country have to pass through South Africa where the censors in Johannesburg screen and edit every production. The same procedure applies to film distribution in Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zambia. ‘The fact is that, ten years after independence, South Africa can dictate what our audiences can and cannot see. In terms of cinema we are still waiting for independence’, claims a representative of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information.

The story with regard to television is not much better. Despite good facilities in Harare and Bulawayo for the production of local programmes, 90 % of television time is given over to imported material. Most of these programmes come from the United States, followed by the UK and Australia. One local producer of documentaries, which have been well received abroad, complains that the dependence on the external market is not solely a matter of availability of programmes. ‘People are reluctant to show local or regional productions. They are fixated on American television, much of which is junk. Here in Zimbabwe, if you produce a film of interest and relevance to the local people, you have to pay to screen it.’

A cultural affairs officer with the OAU claimed that the African market was used as a dumping ground for films of war, adventure, sex and violence which are distributed through agents in New York, London, Paris and Johannesburg. ‘This is a major factor in the destruction and deterioration of our own culture’, he said.

An important step in rectifying some of these imbalances, however, was recently taken in Harare when the First Frontline Film Festival was launched in Zimbabwe. The week-long screening of local and regional films and videos plus the workshops attended by film-producers, programme directors and delegates from different ministries went on to Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia. The aim of the festival, sponsored by SADCC Governments and the OAU, was to formulate policy on the development of film and video in the region as well as to expose local populations to a type of cinema they have never experienced before. ‘We cannot consider ourselves Africans or defend our national dignity if we do not see ourselves on the screen’, claims one local film producer.

But the development of African cinema and television is not only of importance to local consumers. The images of Africans through Western-based productions and the media have a bias which can lead to racism and prejudice among Western audiences.

As the famous British film director Richard Attenborough acknowledged. ‘There is much justification in the criticism that very often, even if black Africans are not shown as grass-skirted warriors, they are treated in a paternalistic way. There is a degree of imbalance in the image that is set up and of course there are very good grounds for complaint among Africans.’ In an attempt to capture some of the markets outside Africa and help rectify this distortion, the festival will also move on to India, New Zealand and the Nordic countries over the coming year.

Not an easy task

The development of the film industry in Southern Africa will not be an easy task, however, as most of the delegates acknowledged. The costs of production are high and because of the lack of foreign currency in the region the purchase of equipment and materials from abroad will be difficult. At the same time the control of the distribution network by wealthy corporations such as Kine and Rainbow will be difficult to challenge. One speaker from Burkina Faso pointed out that when his own country had confronted the monopoly on film distribution held by one international company, all imports were then suspended. ‘It is significant that none of the major theatres in Harare screened any of our films or videos,’ one organiser pointed out. ‘With the resources for advertising at the film distributors disposal, it will be difficult to penetrate the market with local products and win the attention of an audience which has now grown up on a diet of imported material’, he explained.

The training of film producers, cameramen, sound technicians etc. is also of some concern. Although schools have 3 been set up in West and East Africa, lack of resources, money and equipment have ‘c meant that training has not been as effective as it should be for the creation of a competitive and professional industry. One of the recommendations to have come out of the workshops is the establishment of a school in Harare which would not only cater for the region but for the entire continent. In this way scarce resources scattered around different countries could be pulled together to create a viable institution.

The issue of censorship also featured prominently in discussions. While the conference was unanimous in denouncing South African control of distribution and the censorship that went with it, delegates pointed out that one type of control should not be substituted for another. ‘If African film and video production is to be viable and relevant, it must be critical and not subject to government interference,’ claimed one Zimbabwean director. In the past, several productions in Africa had been nothing more than propaganda for the ruling party. Several films had also been banned by censored by Ministries of Information and this in turn had alienated a public who did not want to be ‘protected’ in this way.

Another issue to arise was that of language. If a regional film and video market is to be established, facilities for translation will also have to be set up. Mozambique, which has sponsored an indigenous industry, has not been able to splay its films or videos in neighbouring countries because of lack of production facilities for subtitles and dubbing. ‘These are expenses which have to be taken into consideration,’ claimed a Mozambican director. ‘At present films from Mozambique have to be sent to Portugal to be translated into other languages. The costs are high and what has happened is that only a fraction of our productions can ever be seen outside the country’, he said. One of the functions of the proposed film institute in Zimbabwe will be to provide this facility.

Other directors and producers also cautioned that film and video production should not be aimed exclusively at the urban elite, as is now the case in most African countries. Of the 37 cinemas in Zimbabwe, for instance, some 25 are located in the two major cities while the others are distributed in provincial urban centres. With over 65 % of the population living in rural areas this means that the majority have no access to any of these facilities. Even television coverage in many rural areas of Zimbabwe is impossible because of lack of electricity and poor reception.

One idea that was raised was the establishment of mobile film units to service the rural populations of Southern Africa. Over and above the entertainment aspect of video and film, it was also felt that this could be used to promote development by showing local films on water and sanitation, health care, improved agriculture etc. These should be produced in local languages to ensure they are understood by the target groups.

Will the public follow?

The success or failure of this unique festival, however, will probably be measured in terms of its appeal to the public at large. One distributor pointed out that if directors cannot get people to come to cinemas and enjoy his film, then no matter how ideoligically sound it might be and representative of Africa and its interests, it will count as a failure.

The response of the Harare public in this respect has been mixed. The two cinema halls where films were shown were never filled to capacity but they did attract sufficient numbers to merit optimism. Some of the films and videos have also been sent on to rural areas through the Ministry of Information although there has been little official feedback on what kind of response they received. ‘Those who have seen the films have enjoyed them and asked for more. Of course we realise that much needs to be done to improve the quality of African film before it can compete with the external market, but this festival is the first step in a direction Southern Africa is determined to follow’, concluded one of the festival organisers.

C. Mcl.