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
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
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
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
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
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
The African film industry deserves more than this now that
professional standards are actually being achieved. Congratulations are due to
Burkina Fasos 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.
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
- run a very dynamic promotion policy tailored to African
- protect African films on the European market with:
· bilateral exchange agreements;
monitored screening arrangements;
· checks on declarations of
· 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.