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African reflections

by Seydou Sarr

The third Festival of African Cinema was held in Brussels on 15-22 June. For one week, film-goers in the Belgian capital filled the auditoria of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, where they discovered new images of an alternative Africa. And as always, when the time came to assess how the Festival had gone, professionals and organisers alike were left pondering the problems facing the African film industry.

Organised for the first time in 1994, on the initiative of Diaspora Productions, the Festival had a number of objectives, including that of bringing Africa's finest films to wider public notice. The initiative stemmed from two observations. In the first place, the European public's opinion of Africa is based on what it sees on television - and that image is of a continent so ravaged by famine, misery and strife that it is incapable of progress. Second, from a professional standpoint, there is no effective distribution network in Belgium for African films. Samba Traore by Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo and Hyenes by the Senegalese Djibril Diop Mambety were two rare exceptions in succeeding in getting on to the circuit.

A forum for reflection

In setting up film-industry meetings, the organisers of the Brussels Festival wanted the event to be a forum for reflection on the problems facing African cinema. In the 40 years it has existed, there has undoubtedly been some progress. It is even possible to speak of genuine mastery of images and cinematographic language. But there are also many problems - involving production and distribution, a lack of official support, a shortage of private capital and limited access to international markets. At home, meanwhile, African firms face fierce competition from multi-million dollar productions coming out of the USA, Europe and Asia.

Europe has traditionally offered the only feasible route for those seeking technical and financial resources. The principal donors are the European Union, the ACCT (Cultural and Technical Corporation Agency) and the French Ministry of Cooperation. There are, of course, many instances of African directors producing films without taking this route, but these ventures usually have smaller budgets, and insufficient funds to devote to promotion (press releases, trailers etc). As regards distribution in Belgium, directors face an additional difficulty - they have to take the language issue into account (particularly when films are shown in Flanders).

African professionals are looking at various ways of solving these problems, including the possibility of coproduction with European operators. For some years now, public and private bodies have also been considering the idea of establishing combined co-production teams in a form of partnership, as a way of supporting African cinema. This topic has been on the agenda of other African film festivals (notably in Amiens) and it came up for discussion in Brussels as well.

A colloquium on the subject of ACP/Europe co-production was staged on the fringe of the Brussels event. This served to highlight a number of successful experiments in North/South collaboration. One example was the Cape Verdian film Ilheu de Contenda, by Leao Lopes which was made with support from a Belgian production company, Saga Films. This film was screened at the Festival. It also gave an opportunity to discuss a range of other topics. African journalists accredited to the Festival were given the task of drafting a resolution whose conclusions will be submitted to various contributors including FEPACI (the Pan-African Federation of Film-Makers), the European Union, producers and other donors.

There was general agreement that a coherent legal framework for organising relationships between directors and producers, on the basis of mutual trust, was badly needed.

Positive results

It is worth making a brief assessment of the efforts made by the organisers of the Brussels Festival to offer an improved programme. The showing of shorts at the beginning of a performance is undoubtedly a formula they should employ again. These works are a specialised genre which give young directors the chance to present their first work. The bulk of the shorts that were screened this year were in the form of 'documentaries' based on fiction - but with one foot in the real world. They dealt with people's lives, their daily concerns, and a variety of social phenomena. Thus, we were presented with films dealing with Aids, urban delinquency, the role of women in society and so on.

Another positive point the organisers should concentrate on is the space resewed for English and Portuguese-language films. There were eight performances in this category including four feature films in English and two in Portuguese. A further worthwhile element was the space allocated to African women (from Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso) who have chosen to use the cinema as a means of expression.

Diaspora Productions' managers are said to be reasonably satisfied with the way the Festival went. They hope it can continue to be held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, since they see this as one way of liberating African cultural events from the Afro-Brussels 'ghetto' where they have often been held. They are also keen, in future years, for African films to be shown in Brussels cinemas while the Festival is under way. If this happens, film-goers in Brussels will have the pleasure, from next year, of seeing quality works in their usual cinemas. The timing is appropriate since the 1997 Brussels event will follow the Ouagadougou Festival (Fespaco) which traditionally sees the launch of a number of new films.

Family meeting

The organisers chose to close the 1996 Festival with a fashion parade which gave Pathe 'O, the designer from Cot'Ivoire, the chance to present his collection to the Brussels audience.

On the fringes of the Festival, there was also a musical offering in the shape of the Toure Kunda brothers who came to lend their support to filmmakers and other African artistes.

There are those who would argue that the Brussels Festival has now entered the category of a 'not-to-bemissed' event. Every year, it attracts significant numbers of film-makers from Africa and the diaspora, even when they have no current projects or films to present. There was a real family atmosphere in the corridors of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, due in no doubt to the absence of competition. From the outset, the Diaspora Productions team chose to stage an event at which prizes were not awarded, thereby promoting reflection and contact with the public. It is generally agreed that the Brussels Festival offers a rare opportunity for film-makers to meet and discuss their productions and projects in a relaxed atmosphere.

The credit for this, in the view of many of the participants, lies with Pape Mbaye Sene, one of the guiding lights of the event, who has also been dubbed the 'high priest' of African cinema. It has, in fact, been suggested tongue-in-cheek that 'in Brussels, they award a Pape, not an Oscar'.