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Promoting African films in Europe

by Alimata SALAMBERE

In spite of the constantly increasing output of the African film industry, only very rarely is its work seen by people other than specialists and cine-club members.

Burkina Faso is one of the countries most actively involved in promoting its cinema and, in this article, its Secretary of State for Culture, Alimata Salamb, explains why so few African films are distributed in Europe.

If the African film industry is to improve and to develop fast, it needs to be properly organised, the main features of the cinematographic phenomenon- as art’ means of communication, industry and trade- must be taken into account.

The boost given by festivals such as FESPACO, heightened in recent years by the International African Film and TV Market, has meant that a start could be made on African film distribution. Our film industry is a relatively young one and so it still has plenty of shortcomings and bottlenecks, one of the most obvious being the virtual absence of a market, and there are various types of problem attached to distributing African films in Europe and elsewhere.

It rarely occurs to African filmmakers or producers to start by wondering who is going to distribute the film abroad or to look for distributors and try and involve them in their plans with co-productions and advances on distribution.

The professional European film distribution circuit, protected, indeed virtually reserved, is shared among a number of magnates. Africa badly needs a a powerful voice to defend the interests of its indigenous cinema.

It is the technical, artistic and comercial competitivity of African films which seems to me to pose the biggest problem. Compared to the daily diet of the European film-going public, African films are often technically and artistically mediocre. Screen-play, scenario, direction, picture and sound quality are not up to the standard of the work of European producers, who have years of technical experience and know-how, making African films look like minor works, no more than exotic achievements of little commercial value. This is also why European distributors hesitate to buy African films, deeming them to be beneath their audiences, and explains why only non-professional (non-commercial) distribution networks- the art organisations, film libraries and archives and cultural and international bodies- show any interest.

Directly linked to the problem of the competitive position of African films is that of their promotion and advertising. Because professional film promoters, equipment and money are all in short supply, African films do not get the support they need in Europe. Nor are European critics always favourable either, because they look at African work in the same way as they do European work- if not in a paternalistic light tinged with a search for exoticism. Moreover, the cost of advertising African films often forces European distributors to pocket the bulk of the takings- and the real profits are not always high- so they can only give the most meagre of returns to the African producers.

The almost total absence of protocols on cinematographic exchanges (cultural, commercial and technical) further handicaps the proper promotion of co-productions and the distribution of African films in Europe.

Unhelpful screening arrangements

This legal problem brings various difficulties in its wake to do with the protection of African films on the European market. If it were solved, it would be easier to force people to declare their takings and perhaps lighten the European distributors’ tax burden, thereby stimulating and encouraging them. To my mind, less tax would also help African films compete better, commercially, with European films.

Lastly, there are a number of technical problems behind the frail toehold which African films have on the European market. They are:

- cinema screening arrangements. An African film will often be screened alongside several very well-known European films in the same cinema complex, thus demeaning the African product- a feeling backed up by social and cultural prejudice about Africa and black peoples in general. It is not uncommon to see African films sharing the same cinema with European films but getting all the poor screening times and thus losing much of their audience;

- language, which is apparently not a major drawback to the distribution of a good film. But sub-titles, which are necessary for most of our national-language films, are a considerable handicap to normal, comfortable viewing and the majority of European audiences have got out of the habit of looking at films of this sort.

When films- like Yennenga- with the supreme accolade of a FESPACO Grand Prix behind them still have distribution problems, it is worth wondering whether producers might not be well advised to develop other initiatives to drum up the distributors’ interest in films from the southern hemisphere.

African film-makers have always had a distribution problem. Cinema managers can be provided with films in a number of ways, by:

- getting screening rights for a particular period, usually a maximum of five years;
- (outright or percentage) purchasing and signing a protocol with the producer.

Co-production seems to have been the best way of guaranteeing some sort of outlet for African films so far, as it helps the whole process, production posing its problems long before the question of distribution arises.

The 15-country Inter-African Film Distribution Consortium spent some years trying to bridge the gap, but poor management prevented it from making a success of the job and it is to be hoped that the void it is now leaving, with African film distribution causing increasing concern, will encourage more than one country to get this valuable organisation back on the rails.

The African film industry deserves more than this now that professional standards are actually being achieved. Congratulations are due to Burkina Faso’s National Film Company (SCNACIB) for its drive to distribute as many African films as possible, but alongside this and SIDEC, the Senegalese Film Distribution and Exploitation Company, there is only Nigeria, with a population of over 100 million and several hundred cinemas, which can count on its own market.

International financing

The problems attached to distributing African films in Europe are, of course, generally the same as in and between the countries of Africa itself. The answer would be to:

- find distributors by offering various incentives. The distribution aid that goes with some African films in France is one example of this and it helps the distributor to launch films and gives them a chance of commercial success;
- run a very dynamic promotion policy tailored to African films;
- protect African films on the European market with:

· bilateral exchange agreements;
· proper, monitored screening arrangements;
· checks on declarations of takings;
· support for the Society of Authors and Composers;
· lastly, as mentioned in relation to the standard of African films, financing of the kind used for economic and industrial projects by such international organisations as the EEC.