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African cinema 2.0

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The Burial of Kojo. PHOTO: YouTube

The first half of 2019 will be over in a week and two films with African narratives have stood out as some of the best reviewed films of the year so far, “The Burial of Kojo (2018)” and ‘’Joy (2018)”.

“The Burial of Kojo, follows the story of Esi, as she recounts her childhood and the tumultuous relationship between her father, Kojo and her uncle, Kwabena. After Kojo goes missing on an illegal mining expedition with Kwabena, Esi embarks on a magical adventure to rescue her father”.

As of this writing, it’s rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, one review described it as, “a lush and beautiful film, filled with dazzling images drawn as much from magical realism as from the setting itself.”

The Ghanian micro budget film was written, directed and produced by performing artist Sam Bazawale better known by his stage name, Blitz the Ambassador. He self-financed the shoot and used crowdfunding to complete post production. Bazawale said “I was very focused on making sure that the film had a voice and identity that was defiantly ours, which I don’t think I could’ve done with foreign influence”

“Joy is about a young Nigerian woman caught in the vicious cycle of sex trafficking. She walks the streets to pay off debts to her exploiter Madame, while supporting her family in Nigeria and hoping for a better life for her little daughter in Vienna.”

Joy has won Best Film at the London Film Festival, Hearst Film Award and Label Europa Cinema at the Venice Film Festival and since it dropped on the Nigerian radar, prominent Nollywood directors on social media have raved about its authenticity and storytelling.

Ironically the incredibly well told Nigerian narrative with characters who act and sound like Nigerians was not told by a Nigerian. Director, Sudabeh Mortezai is an Iranian Austrian, born in Germany with a background in documentary, evident in the non-invasive directing choices and cinematography with no sensationalism or deus ex machina resolution to make it more palatable. I am not a Witch (2017), Inexba (2017), Sew the Winter to my skin (2018), Supa Modo (2018) are other films by African filmmakers which have been received well in the global film community.

This is a good sign for filmmakers looking to reach non- African spaces and audiences.
ARRAY founded by Ava Duverynay (When they see Us) which distributed The Burial of Kojo (2019), previously distributed Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City (2011) and Akin Omotoso’s Vaya (2016). Duvernay founded Array so films like these could reach wider audiences.

Other companies are likely to follow suit in acquiring (and financing) films by African filmmakers for distribution in North America and Europe. Netflix opened the path, acquiring Genevieve Nnaji’s Lion Heart (2018) and green lighting in South Africa, live action series “Queen Sono” and animated series “Mama K’s Team 4”. With Hollywood fixated on remakes, reboots and adaptations, it’s no surprise Western cinephiles looking for fresh narratives from other countries. African narratives with Africans in the lead not background or supports to white saviours or on a journey of discovery.

Characters with arcs and authenticity recognizable by the nationalities they represent. Decades ago, Ousmane Sembène (Black Girl), Souleymane Cissé (Yeelen), Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki) were some of the biggest exports of African cinema. Hip Hop billionaire Jay Z, homaged the iconic bull horns on a motorcycle from Touki Bouki (1973) for the 2018 “On the Run II” tour. One of American Cinema’s most revered, Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall street), speaking on their work said:“One night I was watching late-night films on . . . I think it was on Showtime. There was this film called Yeelen [1987]. The picture had just started at 2:30 in the morning, and the image was very captivating, and I watched the whole thing. I discovered that it was directed by Souleymane Cissé and came from Mali. I got so excited. I had seen Ousmane Sembène’s films from Senegal-he was the first to put African cinema on the map, in the ‘60s-but I hadn’t seen anything quite like this . . . the poetry of the film. I’ve seen many, many movies over the years, and there are only a few that suddenly inspire you so much that you want to continue to make films. This was one of them”.

In an era of streaming (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc), African cinema is more accessible to audiences outside the film community than any other time in history, there is a chance for new filmmakers to rise and leave an even bigger impact.

As funding, distribution and number of screens across the continent are still a challenge for recouping investment, it’s imperative for African cinema to gain non-African paying audiences across the globe. The ball is in our court to tell unique stories with the nuances, idiosyncrasies and verisimilitude. The kind which has international distributors at festivals and content markets start bidding wars to purchase distribution rights and ask our filmmakers “What are you working on next?”


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