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iREP Docu-Film Fest 2017… archiving Africa’s past and present for the future

By Omiko Awa, Mwantok Margaret, Enifome Ukodie
26 March 2017   |   4:30 am
Freedom Park, Lagos, on Wednesday, March 15, 2017 came alive with captains of showbiz personalities, members of the academia and Nollywood top shot, who gathered for the cocktail reception of the yearly iREP International Documentary Film Festival.

iREP International Documentary Film Festival Foundation Chairman, Prof. Awam Amkpa (right) in conversation with Egyptian documentarist, Jihan El-Tahri at iREP 2017… in Lagos

Freedom Park, Lagos, on Wednesday, March 15, 2017 came alive with captains of showbiz personalities, members of the academia and Nollywood top shot, who gathered for the cocktail reception of the yearly iREP International Documentary Film Festival.

With theme as, Archiving Africa, the seventh edition of the festival, screened over 30 films on Africa by directors from African and beyond, whose films focus on Africa. Also, the festival had discussion sessions that provided a platform for guests, filmmakers and other people in the arts to mingle.

At the opening cocktail, the Executive Director and Co-founder of iREP, Femi Odugbemi, said, “This year’s theme is focused on ‘Archiving Africa.’ We’re beginning to see the need for history. In fact, history is beginning to show how we navigate our past in photography, literature, arts, films and others. This year’s theme is unique because we are hosting a special guest. It is built around Jihan El-Tahri, a filmmaker, diplomat and journalist from Egypt.

“El-Tahir is a legend and has done great works that would make us to better understand Africa from the pre-colonial, to colonial and, presently, to our struggles. She is the director of Cuba: An African Odyssey, Behind The Rainbow, and Egypt: The Modern Pharaohs.”

While speaking on the festival, iREP Foundation chaired, Prof. Awam Amkpa, stated that the idea of the festival and iREP Foundation began from conversations among friends. According to him, the foundation has since grown with the aim to develop and promote filmmaking and training young filmmakers.

Amkpa called on African filmmakers to do films on Africa so as to tell African stories so that we can have archives that would be useful to ourselves and the future generation. The festival, he informed, would display exemplary works and create platforms for filmmakers and those in filmmaking business across the globe to network and share.

He said, “As a response to the growth of iREP, we set up iREP Foundations. The foundation has the highest curators of people, who work in different organisations. We come together to set up an agenda for filmmaking, not only in Nigeria, but across the world. What we have done is to set up a screening exercise, and during each year, we have trainings. We train the young generation; we also have process where we engage filmmakers, give them a kind of fund and if we cannot fund them ourselves, we link them to organisations that can do so.

“Another thing we want to do is to develop physical presence in our universities. The foundation does many things outside filmmaking.”

While addressing guests at the cocktail, El-Tahri stated that she started producing films in the early 1990s, adding that it is good to archive Africa.

“One of the things I do is to archive the continent and not make films about the continent,” she said.

To start off screening was a film titled, Free Fela, directed by Theo Lawson, followed by Mali Blues by Lutz Gregor.

Free Fela did not only harp on the need to archive institutions and personalities for the future, it exposed Africa’s weak points at preserving what is truly African, as a continent and telling its own story from within. The film raised the issue of copyright and exposed how ignorant most copyright owners are about their works. It also unveiled how foreign countries, especially Europeans, take possession of the continent’s narrative.

However, stakeholders came to the conclusion that if the stories about and around Africa must be told, archiving is key, as it takes on the past that makes for understanding the present for a clearer future.

Untold Story Of Post-Apartheid
In El-Tahri’s Behind The Rainbow

Day Three of iREP Documentary Film Festival saw a showing of Behind The Rainbow, based on post-Apartheid era in South Africa, and directed by Jihan El-Tahri. The 234-minute documentary gives the viewer a peep into what transpired after Apartheid in South Africa, and corruption allegations against former President Thabo Mbeki and President, Jacob Zuma.

On release in 2008, El-Tahri said the film did not screen in South Africa, as there were a lot of controversies around it.

On what the continent is not getting right in post-colonialism politics, she said, the mythology of independence was reconstructed in such a way that cut out the main purpose of the struggle for independence, which according to her, the ANC represented for awhile.

As she put it, “The construction of the mythology of post-independence somehow needed to consolidate the future around a single narrative. It left a lot of people out of the engagement of the future; it became an elitist hierarchy connected to the past, and nobody ever question the people we hailed as our heroes, whether they had the right qualification to govern a country?”

She said one of the continent’s problems is a structural one, noting, “We did not destroy the foundation of our colonial past and the actual problem has always been there. We fail the post-colonial stage. How do we piece together history in film? For me, the visual world is what the younger generation cares about, hence the need for these digital documentation of history.”

Touching little on Mandela’s time as president, Behind The Rainbow presents the friendship Mbeki and Zuma had, considering their long exile history that practically brought them close. Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president, had Zuma as vice. The film shows that they both had a cordial relationship in ruling South Africa; it also focuses on the ‘cat and mouse’ relationship that later ensued.

Narration is by witnesses such as Jeremy Cronin, Sue Rapkin, Blade Nzemande, Victor Moche, Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and many others, who give vivid firsthand accounts.

Behind The Rainbow is a detailed exploration of the evolution of, and internal conflicts within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) since it first came to power with Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994. The film’s focus is on the development over the years of the relationship between two of ANC’s most prominent leaders, Mbeki – who succeeded Mandela as president from 1999 to 2008 – and Zuma, who was one of the most important commanders of the ANC’s armed struggle against Apartheid government.

It is said that no one can really say what went wrong between the two. Perhaps, Zuma did not agree with Mbeki’s concept of reconstructing South Africa, when he promoted shipping across the continent.

Under alleged corruption practices, Mbeki had Zuma investigated, and Zuma felt marginalised. For the people, the conflict between the two leaders was disrupting everything, leading to protests, resulting to the lost of lives and property, and they cried, ‘we didn’t sign up for an Apartheid-like government.

The situation got out of hand and on June 14, 2005, Mbeki finally relieved Zuma as Vice President of the country but he remained deputy president of the ANC.

With charges of corruption and rape on Zuma, his supporters believed it was a set up.

In the end, Mbeki thought he was indispensable to the ANC.

Zuma beat opposition by 2232 to 1505 votes to become Mbeki’s successor.

The director of the film, Tahri in an in-house conversation after the screening, moderated by Mr. Ropo Ewenla said she made the film to point and possibly correct some of the things that go wrong after transition in government. For her, the ANC was the only liberation party in the 60s that was going through the process of transformation. “It took me 7 years to put this together; I was witnessing the moments of transformation. Mandela coming into power was an event but not the moment of transformation,” she added.

She pointed that its focus is the process of transformation of the liberation movement to a governing party, and the clash between the dreams of independence and the reality of governance. “It’s a story about what goes on in the continent-its always a fight between brothers.

“The process of Mbeki ruling and Zuma coming into power is a democratic process. I ask, what is democracy and what kind of democracy do we need to choose for ourselves,” she said. She said the work is a foundation to encourage other people to do more on history.

THIS year’s edition of iREP International Documentary Film Festival, like previous years, had as its objective the promotion of independent documentary features based on Africa and as a platform of awareness and expression for aspiring and practicing filmmakers, who are creating socially relevant documentary films to impact positively on the African world.

One of the star guests of this year’s festival was an Egyptian and French filmmaker, Jihan El-Tahri. She featured in two of the major conversations at the festival alongside her two films Cuba: An African Odyssey and Behind the Rainbow. On Day Two, she had a conversation, ‘The Fight for Independence,’ with Prof. Awam Amkpa, with the sub-theme ‘So, Why Did We Fight So Hard?’ She spoke about how she builds her stories around archival resources.

El-Tahri is an award-winning director, writer and producer, who has directed more than a dozen films, including the Emmy-nominated The House of Saud and The Price of Aid, which won the European Media Prize 2004. Cuba: An African Odyssey has received multiple international awards.

In her conversation with Amkpa, EL-Tahri explained the ups and downs around the production of her documentary film Cuba: An African Odyssey. Amkpa is a dramatist, filmmaker, and scholar of theatre and film, and a curator of art and culture practices.

El-Tahri explained that the process of deriving materials for documentary films are sometimes long and require persistence, adding, “It is just one of the things you do when you feel strongly enough about something. ‘People harassment’ is one of my technics. For example, when I wanted to go to Saudi Arabia, they couldn’t give me visa as a single woman. I called the guy every single morning at 9am for three years. I just decided every morning while I am fixing my coffee to pick up my phone and call him. It is basically consistency; then the people would realize, ‘this isn’t going away; so, I am going to have to deal with it.’ I think we have much more power and much more capacity to go out and get things than we think we do.”

To which Amkpa noted, “the persistence of vision is something that pushes people and filmmakers to get what they actually want.”

El-Tahri said it takes quite a long process to put the films together and have them aired on mainstream TV, adding, “My system is something I cannot recommend to any of you. I need to put together the story as it was told to me. So, my first cut is the narrative, which usually ends being eight to nine hours then you would start getting to the incoherent – that usually is 67 hours; then you cut down and cut down and cut down. The reason I am telling you this story is that there is a universal part to it because you need to create an article with a universal history; that is still innovating.

“So two things: I don’t want to be part of the ghetto because the ghetto stays out. So, how do you make the ghetto a central part of that discourse? I call myself an African filmmaker. So, I am going to be part of that ghetto and I want to bring the ghetto with me. The other thing is that I make films for broadcasters, for mainstream broadcasters that can air them at primetime because my story is as good as anybody else’s story and so it takes me five, six or sometimes seven years to get aired. It takes a lot of persistence, but once it gets aired at primetime on mainstream TV. You can’t tell me it’s not part of history.”

El-Tahri also categorised documentary filmmakers as endangered species with the popularity and immediacy of reality TV. According to her, “I have seen the way documentary films have been going. Mainly, the financing for documentary has been diverted into reality TV because it is easier, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining and that is what people want to watch. They don’t want to break their heads with these things (the hard subjects documentaries deal with). So, I do feel we are endangered species but in our day and age, I think that there are so many platforms that can enable making films.

“You have to have something to say because the technicalities in making these films are finite. The only good films are those that you have passion about because when you have passion about it, you find a way for your own expression. A lot of broadcasters in Europe are now commissioning films off the internet more than they are actually commissioning films directly from makers going and preaching their stories to them.”

Amkpa reiterated that just as networking could be beneficial in any other career, so it is with filmmaking, noting, “El-Tahri has also been very influential in mentoring filmmakers in Africa. So, she not just talking about making her own films and her own stories, but she is also part of the organisational framework that other filmmakers tap into. It is a mentoring structure and, in fact, I got to know Jihan through these other structures.

“So, this organisational structure is important as a way of getting educated about the processes of making films like this. You won’t learn it in universities; you won’t learn it in any other institute but the important thing is that these are the non-formal structures with which you can actually develop your skills. Whatever skills you are learning from the universities are just to give you access to filmmaking but the real education happens with networking with other filmmakers. You have no business making films if you don’t watch other filmmakers; the same thing as you can’t be a musician without listening to other kinds of music. So, it is the same type of principle and she has been at the leadership of that.”

Amkpa’s submission seemed the perfect principle for filmmakers with a passion, which iREP International Documentary Film Festival actually represents in its yearly outing.